Ever since the breakout success of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, the found footage film has become a subgenre in its own right. In a similar vein to Blair Witch, the Paranormal Activity series has found great financial success with their comparatively meagre budgets, and Cloverfield in 2008 proved that, even on a larger scale, the handycam aesthetic can deliver effective thrills when employed by filmmakers who have a solid understanding of the style. Josh Trank’s Chronicle represents an evolution of the found footage genre, taking the character as cameraman conceit to interesting new places, and marking the director as a young talent worth monitoring.

Chronicle differs from predecessors like Cloverfield in the sense that this handycam footage isn’t presented as ‘found’ per se, but rather is a stylistic and narrative choice which puts a refreshingly original spin on a well overdone story: the superhero origin. After encountering a strange, glowing object in a deep underground cave, high schoolers Andrew (Dane DeHaan), Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) discover they have telekinetic powers which allow them to move objects with their mind. Matt considers the powers to be like a muscle, which can be strengthened through training, and after beginning small eventually the trio build superhuman strength and, to their delight, the ability to fly. The special effects betray a small budget at times, but the initial flying sequences are breathlessly entertaining, and the pure joy of the characters makes them more effective than most mega-budget blockbusters. These are meant to be regular kids, and although the story loses focus as the scale grows towards the climax, the early scenes are surprisingly genuine and affecting. But make no mistake, this is an origin story (one which doesn’t necessarily beg for a sequel however), and Trank and his co-writer Max Landis (son of John Landis) use the visceral, in-your-face nature of the found footage to breathe life into a genre which has come dangerously close to wearing out its welcome in the past decade.

As is the case with almost all science-fiction, a lot more can be read into Chronicle than what is happening on the surface. Aside from the excitement of fighting and flying about, there is a very real human story at work, with a lot of teenage life’s triumphs and tragedies. Trank and Landis clearly poured their own experiences into the film, with the three leads seeming like people from everyone’s high school years. Added to this is a nice element of self-reflexivity as Andrew, an unpopular misfit, uses his camera to define himself, and how he sees the world. The old adage about writing what you know seems to ring true in the case of Chronicle, and seeing Andrew learn to move his camera in more dynamic ways thanks to his new found powers is perhaps the tiniest hint of autobiography from Trank. The film is filled with subtle aspects such as this which will probably be missed by most, but thankfully simply taking Chronicle at face value is a rewarding experience, proving that the superhero origin story is not dead, it just needs a good shake up from time to time.


2 thoughts on “CHRONICLE

  1. In what way do you think it lost its focus towards the climax? Are you saying the focus changed from the earlier scenes to the focus of the the final scenes? In story-telling terms, why do you think this movie succeded and Apollo 18 didn’t? I’m just interested to know how to create good story-telling in this “found footage” genre. I’m a complete fan of it, but I just can’t tell when it’s good or bad. Since the genre is really, shall we say, free, if it’s bad the creators can just go “Well, yeah, it’s found footage, what did you expect?”

    • Hey, thanks for you comment/questions! Regarding your question about CHRONICLE’s ending, I think once the story’s scope started to expand it just lost the realism, and a little of my interest started to wane as the focus shifted from the characters towards a more spectacular climax. I think it’s a problem with a lot of found footage films, trying to do to much with a limiting style. The technique works best with a much smaller scale story, in the case of a film like THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT; or by having larger events on the periphery of a small story, like in CLOVERFIELD. By making the kids in CHRONICLE the catalyst for a city-wide event, I think it gets harder and harder to justify the found footage style, and leads to some moments that really stretch the limit of believability. Found footage is all about generating realism, and the third act just wasn’t believable to me.
      As for APOLLO 18, I think the less said the better. I guess the biggest problem I had was that the filmmakers were so set on presenting it as genuine footage that there was almost no drama to the story. The creatures were hidden for so long that by the time anything actually started to happen, I had just completely tuned out. I think it was an interesting idea, but handled very badly. I’m not sure there’s much more I can say than what I wrote in my initial review, but if you like found footage and haven’t seen it then maybe you should give it a go. I appreciate that not everyone has the same taste, so maybe you’ll get something out of it that I didn’t, but I’ve talked to several people about it and it’s pretty much universally hated.

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