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.