Chronicle (2012)

Directed by Josh Trank

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I loved Chronicle when I first saw it back in 2012.  It’s another found footage film, released at a time when such a genre wasn’t quite played out, but now it feels quite limited and a little dull.  The concept, basically a superhero origin story told through found footage recordings, is an interesting one, but the style doesn’t work for this movie, and now I’m not sure it works for any movie.

The found footage concept may not have started with The Blair Witch Project, but it certainly reached a wide audience with that film.  I have not yet seen that movie, but the found footage device seems to make sense considering, from what I know, these were kids fighting for survival and who recorded themselves talking to the camera in a desperate hope to send their message to someone who could help, or just to record their final goodbyes.  Again, I don’t know completely how the style was used.

What I do know is that this shooting style is meant to ground the story, to make it feel real, like something that could happen to you or me.  Most movies, after all, are sensational.  They’re loud, bright, well-lit, well-scored, and the actors are all models.  It’s bigger than real life, so the found footage style, it would seem, is an effort to make this all feel real.  That’s what the angle was on The Blair Witch Project precisely because it’s meant to scare you.  Suddenly if you have a character recording the action, there is an excuse for why you didn’t perfectly frame up a certain shot, and the recording style suddenly reflects the characters’ terror and the terror meant to be experienced by the audience.  If one dude is scared, then when he holds the camera it shakes and whips around erratically.  It keeps you on edge.

But other movies, using this style, often get trapped by the limits they impose on themselves.  In Cloverfield, for example, the idea is that a character (T.J. Miller) is filming the events of a going away party on the night that a Godzilla-esque monster attacks New York.  The story establishes why he’s filming, and then it establishes why he keeps filming: he wants to show this crazy event on camera, it’s amazing.  But then, as things get more and more crazy, it makes less and less sense for why he would keep filming.

Cloverfield presents the entire movie as footage recovered by the government.  This implies that the footage is completely unedited.  We just saw what T.J. Miller just recorded, as he recorded it.  And yet, because this is still a movie, it has to play out at a conventional runtime (90 minutes) and with scenes that move as quickly as scenes typically move.  Basically, even in the attempt to ground a movie and make it more real, it has to fit movie conventions that already separate movies lives from our own.  I guess what I’m saying is that the found footage genre is fighting a losing battle or even that it’s only pretending to fight this battle.

I think the found footage style is an excuse for lazy filmmaking, when used by a movie studio that could clearly afford the budget for a more traditional filmmaking approach.  If you make a found footage film for budgetary reasons (like I believe The Blair Witch Project did), then that’s all well and good.  You use what you have to make a movie, and sometimes your limitations force you to be more creative.

But then a movie like Cloverfield has all these special effects, and it’s clear the shaky camera was an unnecessary choice.  At all times we question why the people filming are actually filming and not running for their lives.  The style affects the authenticity of the content.

So now I need to get into Chronicle.  It’s a story about Andrew, Matt and Steve (Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan), three high school students who stumble upon a glowing orb within a scary cave, and they soon discover they have telekinesis.  Andrew operates the camera, and it’s quickly unclear why he’s filming everything other than that he just tells Alex, ‘I’m filming things now.’

The style makes for an interesting trailer, but the attempted realism quickly flies out the window, not when the characters start flying, but when the movie cuts between multiple cameras (thus ignoring it’s own universe, implying some kind of omniscient character has found all these cameras and edited together the footage) and when the story pivots from a more personal struggle to a Hollywood-esque climactic, violent, building-destroying clash between characters.

Andrew is an outcast, and Dane DeHaan perfectly captures the insecurity, moodiness and sensitivity of a kid struggling through high school.  When he and his cousin Matt, along with the popular kid Steve, discover together this underground glowing orb, they quickly develop a bond.  Beyond the fact that they are now ‘super,’ they are a suddenly tight-knit group of friends.  And it’s genuinely heartwarming to watch Michael B. Jordan’s charisma reel in a sullen kid like Andrew.  He finally has some kind of place within this small world of a Seattle suburb.

The best parts of this movie are as the kids discover the extent of their powers.  They film the whole thing, of course, and now the style makes sense as they are purposefully documenting their journey.  The story is very much centered on the characters’ friendship, and I’d argue that the story peaks (both narratively and in terms of quality) during Andrew’s talent show.

He’s mostly invisible or the target of a bully’s cruel enjoyment, but during this talent show, aided by Steve and Matt, Andrew becomes well-known and well-celebrated and, basically, just suddenly popular.  This is a film about acceptance, whether that’s from your peers, your family or from yourself.  In this moment Andrew has found it.

But then the story starts to move too quickly.  Andrew becomes more moody and unpredictable, following some kind of failed sexual encounter with a classmate wooed by his talent show performance, and he begins to turn into the typical superhero villain.

Andrew’s arc is set up in an earlier moment in which he nearly (and accidentally) kills an aggressive driver.  Steve and Matt want to not hurt anyone around them, but Andrew, so accustomed to the cruel behavior around him, decides he wants to become the apex predator, thus viewing everyone around him as expendable.  In short, he becomes a villain.

And watching Andrew’s descent is hard, not just because it should be since we like Andrew and empathize with his pain, but because the movie effectively ends the moment Andrew gives into his own villainy and yet we have to deal with another whole act devoted to the blockbuster special effects-driven destruction we’ve seen a hundred times before.

And here too the movie really stretches the use of its style, to a painful degree.  Andrew keeps filming himself, of course, but by now we’ve established that he can control the camera with his mind, meaning it will float above, behind or in front of him.  So when he decides to rob a convenience store (in an effective, eerie use of a fireman’s uniform), the camera follows him like a steadicam shot.  The movie basically distances itself from its own found footage style and becomes a very conventional movie.

In that same robbery scene, we cut to the footage from the convenience store camera, and this betrays the logic you might have expected going into this movie.  As I mentioned, Cloverfield decides that everything in the movie has been shot from the same camera and is found by the government, meaning that they merely presented the story as it unfolded on the camera.  There is a rule that the filmmakers gave themselves, to have the style reflect the content.

But Chronicle cuts between shots, again as if someone else collected all this footage and cut this together, which makes no sense.  In one of the climactic sequences (there are a few), between Andrew’s villain and Matt’s hero, they float in the air by the Space Needle, and Andrew for some reason has used his mind to bring out all the phones from the people inside the Space Needle so that they float around them as they fight.  This means they are surrounded by a dozen or so cell phones, almost like the bullet time rig from The Matrix:

matrix-bullet-time

That means that Andrew, even as he is going mad, decides to pull out all the cameras to keep documenting what’s going on.  But it’s not like all these phones all have the camera rolling, and he never turns on the phones and hits the record button… godammit, this doesn’t matter to the story at all, but BECAUSE the movie have itself this rule (everything is found footage), that means it has to follow this rule, even if it’s stupid and unnecessary.  Again, that means the unnecessary style affects the content, making Andrew take time to pull out these phone cameras even as he’s descending into madness.  I hate this style.  What makes it worse is that this scene quickly and aggressively cuts between these cameras, making it feel like a typical film.

The point of found footage films is that they are meant to look different than the movies we’re used to.  You have ONE CAMERA so you have to STICK WITH THE SHOT, but here we cross-cut like mad, and the movie resembles so many before it.

There’s this side character named Casey, and Jesus is she annoying.  Her only role in the film is to be Matt’s love interest since, as Andrew becomes more and more evil, we need a new hero.  Matt, despite his midwestern kindness and general likability, is criminally undefined.  He’s kind of nerdy, I guess, but we know nothing about him other than that he’s Andrew’s cousin, and he likes Casey.  So we are then fed this love story between unlovable characters, their only sin being how bland they are.  Put it this way: Andrew is like a loaf of wheat bread that you buy at Trader Joe’s but that expires in two days, and Matt/Casey are a loaf of white bread you buy at Walmart that doesn’t expire for months because of all of the preservatives.  At least when you buy the wheat bread you’ll try to eat it quickly, but the preservative-laden bread you will just let sit in your cabinet.

Andrew is a much more interesting character despite the slightly forced onrush of evil he demonstrates in act 3.  When Andrew declares that he will be an apex predator it makes little to no sense.  But despite his quick character turn, at least there is a turn.

Matt and Casey, on the other hand, just sit there and do nothing.  And to depict these love scenes, the movie had to come up with a way to film the scene without Andrew being present.  Since they decided that Matt wouldn’t himself film the events, the decision was to make Casey a video blogger, someone who also films EVERYTHING in her life.  Have you ever known two people who film their entire day every day?  No.  If you have one, sure, but two… the point is that it’s another stretch to suggest that Casey will film absolutely everything, and again I say the film just needed to drop the stylistic device and tell the story in a manner freed by this self-imposed limitation.

And Casey is so incredibly grating.  She is just as undefined as Matt, but she has some kind of high horse from which she talks to him, suggesting that he’s the creepy one even as she films every conversation she has with him.  Look, I don’t want to say that Casey is creepy because I like to film a lot of stuff in my daily life too, but don’t pretend that someone else is weird and you’re not.  I’m weird, I’m okay with it.  Casey should just embrace her weirdness.  Move to Portland or something.

So again the form in this case negatively influences the content.  Maybe if Casey wasn’t so aggressive in filming everything I would like her character more.  I don’t know.

I do think the movie should’ve focused more on Matt’s character since he’s the ultimate hero of the film, once he is forced to kill Andrew to save the city.  In their act 3 battle, Andrew is fully unhinged and ready to burn Seattle to the ground.  So Matt steps up and fights him.

But the movie as it is focuses on Andrew.  That means we should live and die by his character.  The movie chooses, almost, to die with him, but then it decides it needs its happy ending, and that’s how we end up with Matt.  If you’re going to end with him, at least give us more to go on, more of a reason to root for him other than we don’t want thousands of innocent (yet offscreen) characters to die.

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