Monday, 14 May 2012

Film Review: Chronicle (2012)

Director: Josh Trank
Writer: Josh Trank and Max Landis
Stars: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan

Every year comes a few films from which the trailer does no justice at all, yet turn out to be far better than anyone expected. Chronicle looked to me like a superhero film for the Twilight generation but after some positive reviews from my trusted sources I decided to take a trip and see it at the cinema. This will go down as the surprise hit of 2012 and may end up being one of the year’s best films.

Three high school teenage boys find a hole in a forest and in that hole is a, seemingly, alien rock which when they come into contact with it, they develop telekinesis. From here on, we see the boys develop their new powers at different stages from moving Lego bricks, to moving cars, to eventually flying. One of the boys, an outsider, users his powers to get back at the world which has rejected him, and this is where the film gets really good – but my reviews aren’t here to tell you what happens but to tell you why a film is good or not, so here ends the plot spoilers.

Essentially this is a superhero origins story; powers given to those who didn’t want them, some use it for good, some for bad, first it’s a secret then the world finds out. The twist in Chronicle is that the characters don’t want to do anything with their powers; no costumes, no masks, no secret identities. The guys are just content with flying and moving objects at will – pretty cool stuff regardless what age you are. But, the story takes on an X-Men style arc as the outsider becomes more powerful and the superhero element continues.

The key to Chronicle’s success is in the pacing, character arcs, and plot development; far too many sci-fi/ action/ CGI-heavy films simply blast the audience with massive action scenes at the start, middle, end and all the areas in between. Writers no longer know that what we want to see is an increasing scale of action, not to show everything at the start and only go on to repeat the formula for another 90 minutes. Writers Josh Trank and Max Landis have surprised and delighted me with this well thought out and carefully planned screenplay where it would have been all too easy to throw all the tricks at the screen from the start. In doing so, the characters are given time to develop in front of our eyes and by the time the final act comes, we’re ready to believe what happens would happen (in the reality of the film of course).

The CGI in the film is fantastic and as good as most $100 million productions; in the final act, where downtown Seattle is the scene of chaos, the CGI element is ramped up to 11 (to borrow the well known Spinal Tap quote) but this works because the finale isn’t just a bigger, extended version of the previous 60 minutes; it’s a true payoff worth waiting for that you don’t see too often anymore.

The film’s main problem lies in the handheld camera footage. This isn’t because it’s 85 minutes of ‘shaky cam’ because this is never the case, but because the film simply grows into something far superior to any ‘found footage’ rubbish that has plagued our screens over the last few years; Cloverfield as an exception. Moreover, the camcorder footage is never even explained nor are we told why we’re watching it unfold in this way; I was expecting an explanation at the end as to why we are seeing this story from, what ends up being, multiple camcorder, CCTV, and network news cameras. Without spoiling too much, I think the film needed a character to have compiled, or ‘chronicled’ if you will, all of this footage and presented it to us either at the beginning or end; one of the peripheral characters, a girl whose blog footage we watch part of, would have made the perfect candidate to make this happen.

Some of the techniques the film makers thought up to allow all the characters to be on screen at once are very clever, most significantly the ability to make the camcorder float, but I truly believe the film would have been even better if it were shot as a traditional narrative with ‘home footage’ inserted at key moments – most notably when the first learn to fly. I said that Chronicle grows into something far better than camcorder footage can allow, and the film’s brilliant climax is slightly hampered from an enjoyment perspective if you question how this footage is being caught; there are times when it’s not explained and is purely delivered from a movie camera, which is fine but goes against what the film makers set out to do. This also ties into my original fears that the film was for the teenage market because of the ‘found footage’ angle. It’s not needed and should be reserved for cheap trashy horror flicks.

Chronicle is a great film, better than it perhaps even ought to be, and comes highly recommended. It’s also one of the few films I’ve seen for many years from which not only would I welcome a sequel, but one which truly deserves and warrants one.


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