Chronicle (2012) – superheroes vs found footage, or Hollywood vs YouTube?
That’s chronic in the positive, Dr Dre-sampling definition. In other words, it’s dope.
(Josh Trank, 2011)
A deeper, darker tale of superhero hubris than its jokey marketing implies – and a fascinating dispatch from the war between Hollywood pros and YouTube amateurs
It’s quite possible that some films are produced by a kind of genre Tarot, in which the cards are turned over until an acceptable combination turns up. Chronicle is the inevitable result of matching “superheroes” with “found footage,” but refreshingly, it’s also a film whose makers have bothered to read the small print on each genre before beginning.
So Chronicle is, equally, a superhero movie defined by the limitations of found footage, and a first-person camcorder movie with some surprising new moves to match its newly super-powered heroes. So the first act is deliberately, almost self-consciously, a beat-for-beat retread of every movie in which a socially awkward youngster takes a camcorder to a party… until he’s dragged off to record a mysterious new discovery.
At which point, the rules of found footage are tested and satirised. It’s become a cliché to say that the problem with the first-person vantage point is that no rational person would keep filming in the middle of a nightmare. Call it the Cloverfield Theory. Here, there’s an abrupt cut from whatever happens to the trio of teenagers that night to several weeks later, as they meet up to test new powers that have sprung up in the ellipse – for once, the moment of self-discovery (itself a cliché of superhero origins) has been bypassed. But once budding auteur Andrew (Dane DeHaan) gets a taste for filming every last facet of the superhero experience, it becomes clear that the Cloverfield Theory remains intact. Damn right, no rational person would keep filming.
At heart, Chronicle is a tongue-in-cheek parable about YouTube, and this generation’s obsession with keeping the camera rolling. It’s there in the Jackass-style pranks which form the superheroes’ testing of their powers. It’s there in the fact that, when the film needs a reverse shot, everybody’s vlogging nowadays (there are scenes here, bordering on self-parody, that recall The Day Today sketch about the family with cameras surgically inserted into their foreheads). But mostly, it’s there in the wish fulfilment of a film director who can suddenly think big because he can conjure special effects with his own hands – or, in the film’s most inspired gimmick, he can free “found footage” from the tyranny of handheld and control his virtual camera by telekinesis alone.
The unspoken implication is that, just because everybody can do something, not everybody should… which is interesting, considering that Josh Tank’s debut is not actually the Monsters-esque nuts-and-bolts, DIY-with-nobs-on aesthetic it appears to be, but a multi-million dollar studio pic written by Max (son of John) Landis. If Monsters suggested a new order of filmmaking in which resourcefulness and FX trickery could make a blockbuster on a shoestring, Chronicle inverts that mission statement by suggesting that the mainstream can do ‘indie’ better than the independents.
So: a lesson from Hollywood on leaving it to the professionals – but, somewhat gallingly for conspiracy theorists, Trank and Landis walk the walk. This is not only superior “found footage” but a reinvigorated take on the increasingly boring superhero genre. Chronicle is a remarkably level-headed film, which instead of mythic bombast wonders out loud about the ethics of having one-up on the rest of the world. That aligns it more closely to the likes of Primer (this does for flying what that film did for time-travel) than, say, Heroes. There’s no backstory or explanation required, simply a strong narrative grounded in the pitfalls of falling into Nietzschean temptation by becoming Übermensch. Perhaps Hollywood has learned something from the indie crowd after all.