Director: Josh Trank
Writer: Max Landis
Cinematographer: Matthew Jensen
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Alex Russell, Michael Kelly.
Josh Trank has become the embodiment of a cautionary tale for Hollywood. Too often a director (almost always a male) will make one indie film that is well received, after which a studio will scoop them up, hand them a 9 figure budget and the keys to a major franchise. Sometimes the results are good (James Gunn), sometimes mediocre (Colin Trevorrow), and sometimes disastrous. Now, I must admit that I did not watch Trank’s Fantastic Four movie, but based on the reviews, the word of mouth, and the overwhelmingly awful response the film garnered, it’s safe to say that investing a high risk franchise on someone who hasn’t proven themselves yet is a gamble. Sure, they are cheap and usually easy to manipulate, but it comes at the cost of inexperience. I wouldn’t be opposed to rookies destroying the franchise and superhero cinematic market, but I’m pretty sure studios would be opposed to this. The perplexing thing is that Chronicle, while well acted with a quite good script, appeared to me a success in spite of awkward directing, not successful because of the man behind the camera. So the initial choice to hand him a superhero reboot and the subsequent dismay over his screwup seems a little weird to me, if not unwarranted given he never showed all that much promise in the first place.
First, though, let’s look at the plot and what does work.
Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) is a quiet teenager who isn’t very popular in school. He is bullied by pretty much everyone: classmates, girls, his abusive father (House of Cards‘ Michael Kelly). The only person who loves him is his mother, who is dying of an undisclosed terminal disease. At a house party Andrew’s cousin Matt (Alex Russell) forces his to attend, the two teenagers, accompanied by the most popular kid in school Steve Montgomery (Friday Night Lights‘ Michael B. Jordan) come across a sinkhole and decide to enter an unearthed cave. Inside the boys discover a strange, luminous rock formation, begin to bleed out of their noses, and pass out.
After coming to, the boys have special telekinetic powers. At first they experiment and have fun with these new abilities. Eventually they grow stronger and extend to themselves, providing them with the ability to levitate and fly. As they expertise these newfound muscles, they can move larger items and control more with their minds. As their power increases, so does their potential for destruction and the potential harm they can wreak.
It doesn’t take a magician to foresee that the bullied and weak Andrew may be prone to take revenge against the people who have wronged him, especially his violent and abusive, alcoholic father. The film, penned by Max Landis (son of director John Landis), is not the most creative or groundbreaking, but as an origin story, it is infinitely better than most actual superhero movies out there. It’s basically the male Carrie, and that’s not a bad thing.
The acting is quite good. DeHaan is great at playing the weak and put-upon Andrew, showing an introverted kid with a penchant for rage boiling just under the surface, begging to be unleashed if given the chance. He is the anchor of the movie, the foil for the audience, and remains likable throughout, in spite of his increasingly troubling behavior. Jordan isn’t given too much to do, but audiences familiar with him know him mostly by his constantly angry and difficult characters, so playing a carefree, popular jock lets him have a lot of fun, which he doesn’t usually get the chance to showcase. Alex Russell is the weak link in the trio, his acting is forced and his motivations unclear, a side story with a girl makes absolutely no sense, not helping the matter. Michael Kelly his really good at being awful, as we already know, and boy is he awful in this film.
But the direction and cinematography really bring this film down. Aside from the unexplained nose bleeds, the story is overall quite tight, in spite of a few purposely unanswered questions, so the screenplay cannot be faulted much. The editing is more troubling, mostly consisting of trying to hide a low budget and an overall lack of special effects. But for the life of me, I am getting really annoyed with found footage movies. Sure, I will give this movie credit for doing it in a slightly new way, making Andrew a kid obsessed with filming and making the cameras floating once the teenagers gain their powers, but the scenes that are recorded and the ones that are not are entirely arbitrary, with absolutely no reason for when and why they exist. The shaky cameras, the bad angles, the awkward placement of shots all together bring down what is an otherwise pretty good film with a lot of potential. It could have done something with the narcissistic teenage tendency to document every moment of their lives, but the film never reaches that level of insight. Josh Trank is no magician behind the camera, so why anyone would think he would be a good big-budget director is beyond me.
Chronicle, in spite of its negatives, though, is a good superhero movie for people like me, who loathe superhero movies. It has just enough of the origin story, the science fiction element, and the superpowers to keep fanboys and girls interested, but enough of an actual storyline with compelling characters to satisfy those of us who find Marvel and DC films vapid and squalid. It’s the perfect late night “I-don’t-know-what-to-watch” movie, which is exactly why my fiancé and I chose it in the first place, and it does its job effectively. Sometimes that’s all you can really ask for.