Through ‘found footage,’ Chronicle tells the story of three young men, seniors in high school, who find a strange object and gain telekinetic powers; the ability to move objects with the power of their mind and eventually the ability to fly. Sounds a bit like an origin for a silver age super-hero story doesn’t it? If anything, the film is a response to such stories and embraces wholly the fears people would hold against such super-powered individuals.
One of the young men, Andrew, is awkward, introverted and shy teen who blossoms with the powers he gains. He and his cousin Matt attend a party, or rather, Matt convinces Andrew that he should socialize with his peers and brings Andrew to a party. Andrew’s begun videotaping his day-to-day life, initially in what seems to be an attempt to film his drunken father beating him, but it soon turns to an obsession. Of course Andrew brings the camera with him to the party. Later in the night, Steve Montgomery, the most popular kid in school – jock, class presidential candidate, all around nice guy, beckons Andrew to follow him and Matt down into a mysterious hole emitting a strange noise, near the site of the party. The three boys venture forth and find a giant blue crystal that distorts the camera’s vision, causes the boy’s noses to bleed. The crystal turns red before the camera blacks out.
Andrew’s camera, a new sleeker version, focuses on the boys learning to use their abilities but they briefly mention blacking out and now knowing how they got out of the hole. After a few days of learning more about their abilities, they return to the hole which has been filled and they are soon turned away by police who shoo them away.
The three boys continue learning the strength of their powers with Andrew’s powers growing into the strongest and most daring of the three. The turning moment for the three young men is when Andrew ‘inadvertently’ causes a truck that has been tailgating them to swerve off the road and into a lake. Anybody who has seen commercials for the film has seen this scene.
The three young men argue about the rules governing their powers, with Matt sensing the instability in his cousin. Matt basically invokes Stan Lee’s great saying that “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” though in not so many words. The scene closes then switches to the two cousins who are summoned to what appears to be a rock quarry by a call from Steve, who is floating. The young men learn to fly. More scenes of the young men exploring their powers, including one point when Andrew states his wish to fly to Tibet in order to learn to harness and control his power and for calm and quiet.
The story departs from the typical silver age superhero origin story in that Max Landis’s story depicts the angst of the teenagers realistically. Andrew, in particular, as the abused son of an alcoholic father has a great deal of pent of anger and frustration dealing with his fears of his home life. Andrew is bullied at school, too, so in short, Andrew might be the last person you’d want to give the powers of a god.
When Andrew splits from his two super-powered friends, and by virtue of the shared experience the three young men had when they gained their powers, each of the three can sense when the other is agitated through a nose bleed.
Steve senses problems with Andrew and the two meet in the clouds during a thunderstorm. Steve, always the level headed guy, tries desperately to help Andrew. Unfortunately, Andrew is still reacting to the fight with his father.
Andrew later breaks his cousin’s rule and begins inflicting pain on his tormenters and soon robs neighborhood bullies and eventually a gas station to get money his mother desperately needs. Money his father spends on alcohol, it is implied. When the gas station robbery goes from bad to worse, Andrew is burned and hospitalized. There’s a brief hope, seen through the hospital camera’s that Andrew’s father might have some inkling of sympathy for his son’s injuries, but the hope is turned to rage. Mom died, as dad says, when Dad was looking for Andrew. It is Andrew’s fault his mother died. This is the last thread of humanity left in Andrew and he explodes, blowing out the windows of the hospital and dropping his father from the sky above the hospital.
Meanwhile, at a part with his girlfriend, Matt through a profusely bloody nose noticed by the other party goers, comes to realize Andrew is feeling troubled and using his powers. Matt swoops in and saves Andrew’s father.
What then ensues is quite possibly the most frightening and realistic depiction of super-powered individuals using their full powers in combat ever depicted on film. Carnage, devastation, and the sheer level of damage as a result of the fallout between the battle between Andrew and Matthew is nearly cataclysmic.
The film ends when through the lens of Matt flying and landing in Tibet, telling Andrew that “You made it.”
Chronicle is a film that is sitting with me days after having viewed it. I grew up reading comic books, particularly DC comics beginning in the 1980s and of and on until today. SO much of this film resonated with a lot of the comics I read and specifically, the unfathomable levels of destruction just two super-powered individuals can cause when they aren’t getting along. I’m thinking a bit of the destruction of Metropolis in the battle between Doomsday in Superman in Superman #75 when Superman died. I’m also thinking of the issues of Miracleman written by Alan Moore and lavishly illustrated by John Totleben, specifically the destruction of London in issue fifteen of the Eclipse series published in the US.
Unanswered is the origin of the blue crystal which granted the three young men their powers. While learning more about this thing would be interesting, it is just a MacGuffin for the film, it gets the ball rolling. As in Cloverfield, although the monster’s origins are of great debate and interest, it is the reaction to regular people that defines the story.
In some senses, even though about a decade separates me from Max Landis, I almost feel like this film was written exactly for somebody like me with the background of 20+ years of comic book reading. Conversely, by avoiding the capes and tights inherit in the superhero genre and featuring teens in everyday clothes, the film is grounded in a reality with which folks who don’t read superhero comics can more easily identify.
When the Matrix sequels were released, some said the rain-soaked battle between Neo and Agent Smith was the best depiction of a superhero / supervillan fight on the screen. While that wanton destruction was a good translation of such a fight, the stakes were not very high – it was a virtual world in a city with no real inhabitants. Chronicle raises the stakes – people get hurt, buses and cars are flung into buildings and buildings are destroyed. In other words, the otherwise happy supehero feel turns to horror and dread.
Quite simply, Chronicle is a superb film, rounding out a quartet of essential “found footage” films with The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and Paranormal Activity. It is an essential science fiction film and an essential super hero film for the audacity of Andrew to spit in the face of Stan Lee’s “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility” and his cousin’s ultimate embracing of that ethos.
A sequel is in the works, though one hopes (and would like to think) Max Landis and his co-horts learned a valuable lesson from the second Blair Witch film and the Paranormal Activity sequels. There is great potential for more stories about the crystal’s origins or Matt’s exploits in and after Tibet.
Highly, highly recommended.
As a coda, anybody who has seen this film and/or has a knowledge and interest in superheroes, specifically the Death of Superman, should take about ten minutes to view this great youtube video which Landis released to the internet the same day Chronicle hit theaters.