Can a cheap gimmick ruin a great story?
I bet when Josh Trank and Max Landis brought their pitch for Chronicle to a studio exec, they got about four words into before the exec held up his hands and said, “Wait, did you say ‘found-footage superhero movie?’ STOP RIGHT THERE! Here, take my entire wallet! Hell, you can come over and bang my mistress. Here’s my keys, there’s cocaine on the night stand.”
For trend-savvy businessmen who think in skin-deep marketing labels looking to recreate whatever was popular eight months ago, “found-footage superhero movie” is a word-powered Viagra boner, perfect for stabbing the nubile 18-year-olds they like to cast in everything. With Chronicle, it’s also a case of the hook, the most flashy thing about it, being the only obnoxious part of something otherwise pretty great. Found-footage is to Chronicle what that clear, one-button mouse was to Mac computers 10 years ago. Gimmick aside, it’s a high school movie that isn’t about the misunderstood loser courageously throwing off the shackles of his inexplicably cruel jock overlords. It’s a superhero movie in which the people who develop superpowers don’t have the morals of a 50s Boy Scout leader. I’d been hoping someone would make those for years, and now one movie does both? …What’s that you say? I have to watch it through the conceit of a high schooler’s camcorder? Boy, I could kick that Blair Witch right in the cunt.
Dane DeHaan plays our chronicler, Andrew, who conveniently for us in this world of diagetic-only video, is videotaping his entire life. Andrew’s mom is dying of cancer, his dad is an abusive alcoholic, and to top it off, he has crippling social anxiety. His only real connection to the world is his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), who drives him to and from school every day and tries to get him to be more social. Matt’s also some kind of philosophy major (don’t ask, he’ll just start quoting Kant or Jung or some shit). Matt finally drags Andrew to a party, and there, out in the woods, Steve, the class president (Michael B. Jordan/Wallace from the Wire) has found a mysterious glowing clump of power-giving crystallized space jizz. Steve tells Matt, Matt drags Andrew along to film the whole thing, and BOOM, mind bullets.
It’s been a long time since a high school movie actually reminded me of actual high school, mainly because lines like “OMG, HOW COME YOU DON’T REMEMBER ME, MAVIS GARY, WE SHARED A SLEEPING BAG IN FORESTRY CLASS FOR 12 YEARS!” just don’t speak to me. Rather than the usual nerd-pines-for-cheerleader, what Chronicle captures that few other high school movies have is the way a random event, a shared ride home, a weird incident at a party, can thrust you into a whole new social circle, and how thrilling that can be (looking back on it, I’m pretty sure I acquired most of my current friends when I was the first to have a car). And when shut-in Andrew and class president Steve are brought together by circumstance, Steve doesn’t pull the usual GO AWAY, POORBRO, YOU’RE NOT ONE OF US. He’s nice. They become friends. He genuinely wants to help. That shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it’s incredible how many films assume popularity is based on assholishness. For the past 20 years, it seems like every high school movie has been written by some socially awkward loner whose self-inflicted feelings of rejection color his entire reality. People exactly like the Andrew character, actually.
And that’s the second part of what makes Chronicle good, the idea that maybe not everyone who gets a superpower will become a justice-seeking hero, or a villain bent on destruction. Maybe some will just be guys that use their powers to rock shit at a talent show, or destroy an entire city because they’re pissed off about lost car keys. It’s a relatable take on what it might be like to suddenly have a superpower. Well, almost. I’m pretty sure that if they made an honest movie about an 18-year-old me getting the power to alter physical matter with my mind, 90 percent of it would be me pulling up girls skirts, pulling down their tops, jiggling boobs with my mind, removing bras and underwear from a distance… After that it might even get pervy. Have you met a teenage male? But like, I get it, it’s a PG-13 movie.
The found-footage conceit still sucks, because not only is it totally unnecessary and never justified, by creating the unnecessary constraint that all footage has to come from one of the characters filming, we end up getting both the artsy-photographer-girl-as-love-interest, AND the character-is-filming-his-entire-life-for-a-blog. Screenwriters, seriously, stop it with the photographer chick. What are you, 12? “She’s not just a pretty face, bro, she takes pictures!” Oy. Even worse, this girl is apparently filming her entire life for some never-explained blog. Now, ever since reality TV became a thing, every stoner asswipe thinks it’s super clever to say, “What’s next, man? Eventually we’re all just going to be filming our entire lives, because the internet.” No. This is everyone’s dad’s faux-profound take on technology, and it’s about as insightful as “women be shoppin’.”
It’s a dumb gimmick, but Chronicle might never have gotten made without a dumb gimmick that sounded good in a pitch meeting. I liked it in spite of it. Hopefully they won’t need a gimmick next time.