Director: Josh Trank
Screenplay: Max Landis; Story: Max Landis & Josh Trank
Cinematography: Matthew Jensen; Editing: Elliot Greenberg; Production Design: Stephen Altman; Set Decoration: Fred Du Preez; Costumes: Diana Cilliers; Score: Andrea von Foerster
Stars: Dane DeHaan (Andrew Detmer), Alex Russell (Matt Garetty), Michael B. Jordan (Steve Montgomery), Michael Kelly (Richard Detmer), Ashley Hinshaw (Casey Letter), Bo Petersen (Karen Detmer), Anna Wood (Monica)
On the cusp of another summer of blockbuster blitzkrieg, one can only hope moviemakers look to their laurels by revisiting one of the finest superhero movies of recent years. Forget all the over-marketed, big-budgeted Dark Knight Rises, Avengers and Amazing Spider-Mans that glutted the franchise market back in 2012. Chronicle, a modest little sleeper by comparison, directed by Josh Trank and written by Trank and Max Landis, with shoestring special effects, a teensploitation plotline and derivative handheld video camerawork, still emerged as the most creative, original superhero movie of that year. Or, to be more accurate, the best secret origin story of a supervillain. The revisionist storyline was clever enough to subvert our initial expectations.
At a rave, three high school students, outcast loner Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and popular class president Steve (Michael B. Jordan) happen across a pulsating object in the ground emitting a strange electronic hum. Soon after making contact, the boys discover that they are developing superhuman powers. They can now move objects with their minds, levitate at will, link to one another telepathically and prove impervious to pain. Realizing that their powers can do harm to others, the trio self-impose rules concerning where and when they can use them. Having found something he’s actually good at however, Andrew’s new found powers begin to go to his head, making it increasingly difficult for the other boys to control him.
Most kids dream about having super powers, something to make them special enough to stand out from the crowd. The first half of Chronicle plays like wish-fulfillment fantasy of the first order, fantasy formed from its makers’ own comic book sated, schoolboy daydreams. Landis, who is no stranger to riffing on superhero mythology after his Cooking with Comics web series and The Death and Return of Superman YouTube short, is the son of established Hollywood producer/director John Landis. Trank made his impressive feature film directorial debut with Chronicle and previously worked on Spike TV’s bank heist mini-series The Kill Point.
Both men are under thirty, not much older than their own teenage protagonists, and still young enough to remember those years vividly. But their fantasies have changed rather drastically in the intervening decade. Instead of donning capes and leaping tall buildings in a single bound, they now find themselves living out the equally impossible dream of helming a cult Hollywood hit their first time at bat. With its lack of star names and unassuming $12 million outlay, Chronicle has been done on the relative cheap by superhero standards (Matt sings along to Jessie J and B.o.B.’s “Price Tag” on the radio, indication this was a labor of love, not profit), but the limited budget actually works in the movie’s favor. The low-key makes what might seem incredible given normal superhero standards, much more plausible. The script, buoyed by improvised ad-lib and witty one-liners, strives to seem feasible, rather than self-effacing.
With so many other movies like Super and Kick-Ass successfully parodying the superhero theme these days, Chronicle needs to take the straightforward tack in order to ground its outlandish material in reality. While its characters have likewise been raised on comic books and video games and unconsciously play into the same clichés, the difference here is that these kids have real superpowers, rather than simply relying on power claiming spandex suits. However, Chronicle is as dark and violent a satire on superhero movies as those savagely funny earlier films. Even when the boys learn to fly, the script keeps their feet planted firm on the ground by throwing into the mix the sort of problems superheroes never had to worry about in the comic strip past, namely hypothermia (“It’s freezing up here.”), and invading the air space of commercial passenger liners. When they’re buzzed by a Boeing 747 and topple limply out of the sky, they seem no more heroic than amateur skydivers; the material of their windbreakers flapping in the breeze like useless parachutes that failed to open.
The use of handheld cameras and mockumentary stylistic techniques has become so hackneyed since The Blair Witch Project popularized this form of filmmaking over a decade back, that one now has the knee-jerk reflex to just dismiss films that employ it out of hand (Chronicle recalls Blair Witch directly when the three explorers head off into the woods to hunt down the sinkhole with the meteor). In Blair Witch, this technique had likewise imparted an air of authenticity to what we were seeing, punching up the horror of inadvertently being privy to pseudo-snuff. But all the knockoffs in the decade since have worn the bloom off.
The biggest problem with mockumentaries has always been getting audiences to suspend their disbelief that people onscreen would never put the camera down, even when events make it seem absurd for them to keep recording (it is weird, as Andrew is advised before the rave). It seems to take the general stupidity associated with horror film characters who, for plot purposes, are forced to behave in ways no right-minded person ever would, to the next level. And yet, viewing a random sampling of videos posted on YouTube proves that this steely determination (which used to be the exclusive province of professional documentarians and TV news reporters) to keep cameras glued to the eye and trained on an event right up to the bitter end, has become commonplace.
Chronicle’s premise of ‘found’ footage doesn’t seem as egregious as usual, because teenagers have been conditioned to create dramas out of their lives. The younger generation grew up in a social media saturated culture and has never known any different, so documenting their every move for posting on Facebook and Twitter seems to come second nature. It might even appear normal to them to see fictional characters onscreen recording every insignificant detail of their life, as if being captured on camera somehow made it more tangible to them or at least imparted it with greater value and importance. Certainly that’s the major reason Andrew, Dane DeHaan’s character, a wary kid with no self-confidence or sense of worth, brutalized at home by his alcoholic father and at school by his classmates, keeps a camera constantly trained on himself. Even before he begins using it to document the major weirdness taking place as he develops paranormal powers, it helps him feel like less of a zilch. Simply being in the camera’s eye makes him seem like somebody important, even if it is a purely onanistic exercise. He adamantly declares that “We have to document this,” as though video of his friends bending silverware and setting off runaway shopping carts will serve as an indispensable testament for future generations to study and learn from. As the title states, this movie is meant to be a chronicle, and the director uses Andrew’s camera as his primary eyewitness. It becomes an extension of the character himself, the story his first-person narration. Though Andrew’s superpowers are meant to be the only thing he’s ever been talented at, from what we see he’d make an ace cinematographer. The scenes he captures are not only creatively inventive but occasionally breathtaking. He’s a visual poet capable of maneuvering a camera with finesse. To Andrew, art is therapeutic. The video camera becomes his means of expressing himself, as much as his powers do, so it’s fitting that he should fuse the two.
Andrew nurtures the ability to move the camera with his mind so that it hovers about of its own accord. This is meant to be his latest parlor trick, but it’s really a shrewd way for cinematographer Mathew Jensen to inject greater visual dynamism, movement and varying angles into proceedings. As we become more estranged from Andrew, the camera takes on the objective distance of a third-party observer, floating about independently rather than capturing events from his handheld, first-person perspective.
The constant taping is used more cleverly here than usual and the moviemakers have the good sense to incorporate it in a humorous manner that lets us know they’re in on the contrivance. Self-effacing, tongue-in-cheek moments include Andrew’s response to his mother’s question concerning who the audience is for his home video, “Just millions of people that are watching at home.” He’s more psychic than he realizes. Also amusing is the practicing cheerleaders’ umbrage at his filming them from the bleachers by the field, assuming he’s some voyeuristic perv, and the dealers on his street who suspect he’s a narc collecting visual evidence for the cops. Less amusing is when he’s accosted by a drunken older guy at the rave for filming his girlfriend dancing and nearly gets his nose broken, along with his video recorder. Character and camera have become so interchangeable in our mind by this point we no longer know where one ends and the other begins.
Clearly this 90-pound weakling is crying out for a miracle to descend from the skies and impart him with the bravado to take up for himself. And divine intervention we must assume it to be since what that pulsating crystal starfish actually is, where it comes from or what it’s doing buried in the middle of a forest clearing, is never explained. It has a strange electronic discharge that short-circuits the camera whenever Andrew gets too close, so we never see how the boys escaped after the sinkhole began caving-in around them and the picture went on the fritz. Like the aftermath of most raves, it’s all a blank in the mind.
Andrew loses his first camera down that rabbit hole, so the movie picks up recording after he’s purchased a newer model and the picture quality has improved exponentially. The boys are left to conjecture among themselves about where the source of their powers emanated (“So you think it’s radiation?” “Dude, it’s the government.”). The movie uses shorthand to verify our own suspicions by showing that the sinkhole has been filled in and the area roped off by authorities. In the extended ‘lost footage’ director’s cut, Andrew even returns to the clearing later to discover a swirling crop circle has formed in the surrounding grass.
In truth, the who, the how and the why doesn’t really need to be explained, because Chronicle is not so much about how Andrew gets his powers as what he chooses to do with them, whether he uses them for good or evil. It’s crucial for us to know which way Andrew swings as it slowly starts to dawn on him how expert he is at moving objects with his mind. He has so much bottled up inside, so much he needs to let out, that he takes to channeling like a duck to water. When older cousin Matt, who he looks up to, admits he’s even better at it than him (“Oh really? Am I?”), Andrew nearly bursts with pride. He astounds the other two by how fast his powers develop (“Dude, I hate you.”), proving the only one capable of concentrating hard enough to control the ball thrown at him or erect that Lego set.
It’s a bad time in life to be gifted with such power though. With hormones spiking off the charts, teenagers have it hard enough just trying to control their impulses and master their emotions. When the angst ridden Andrew is in turmoil, for instance, the roiling heavens respond with electrical thunderstorms. His powers seem triggered by his emotional state, which means he could prove a danger to others despite himself. Though they’ve been gifted with extraordinary capabilities, these guys haven’t attained the commensurate state of enlightenment that would allow them to use their powers responsibly. Instead, they respond like immature kids in a candy store. They use their telekinesis like typical teenage boys, to rig ballgames, lift girls’ skirts and pull silly pranks, much as those warlocks did at the beginning of The Covenant (2006).
At the toy store, Matt expends his energies trying to pull chewing gum out of a guy’s mouth, inadvertently sending him hurtling into a shelf instead. Though the boys laugh it off, this miscalculation seems more cruel than funny, our first inkling that something is wrong. It’s the exact same way Andrew will pull the teeth out of the mouth of a bully at school later. When Steve spirits a parked car into a new space while the owner is away (“Yes, it was the black guy this time.”), we can see the power going to his head as clearly as it later will Andrew’s. And Andrew tops Steve’s stunt by sending that tailgating pickup truck plummeting off the highway into a lake. Though he professes innocence, claiming that this lethal display of road rage was an accident, we’re not so sure. Especially when he responds to the event like a whelp, trying to stop Matt from calling an ambulance for fear of getting in trouble, and, unable to grasp the consequences of his actions, can’t understand why the other boys are so angry at him. Clearly, Andrew is still too immature to realize that with great power comes great responsibility.
While souped up with aliens and government conspiracies, the story of Chronicle is really, at core, a variation on Carrie, which the director cites as a primary influence along with Brian De Palma’s follow-up to it, The Fury. Here we have a boy abused by his father and picked on by his high school classmates, rather than a girl abused by her mother and picked on by her high school classmates, but Andrew still finds telekinesis a handy way to start taking up for himself and fighting back. Like Carrie, bullied Andrew cultivates his wild talents as a means of expressing himself. It’s the channel through which he can concentrate all his suppressed rage over the way the world has treated him. Whenever the boys overextend their power, as Steve does when he moves that car, it affects the neurocircuitry in their brain, triggering nosebleeds, to which they respond, “I’m having a face period!” Just like Carrie.
Matt tells Andrew he isn’t always easy to get along with because he’s hostile, but the film shows us where all that latent fury springs from. He’d had to beat it back, keeping his temper in check all those years he’d been called a loser and an embarrassment by his father and picked on at school while too weak to stand up for himself. He’s swallowed so much anger with no means of expression, it’s reasonable that once his repressed emotions can be concentrated and released through his powers, that he should develop more quickly than the other, better adjusted boys. They don’t harbor nearly as much rage and sexual frustration inside them, whereas Andrew has been ready to pop for a while. Gaining superpowers gives him a novel avenue through which to exorcise his demons. The more vitriol he’s able to process paranormally, the less anti-social he becomes. With his feelings no longer pent-up inside, eating away at him, he can begin to thrive. Andrew, who used to eat his lunches all alone in the stands, now films himself eating with Matt and Steve. And when he models his magician outfit for his ailing mother, she is contented to see her boy, who never had any before, spending so much time with his new friends.
Though they had nothing in common prior to the incident, the three boys now share a special bond that others can’t understand (Steve gets a call from his irate girlfriend complaining about all the time he’s spending with Matt and Andrew). They’re like war vets who know there’s no one else in the world who could understand the life altering experience they’ve been through. Their telepathic connection links them in the strictest sense; when one uses their power, the others intuitively respond with nosebleeds and headaches. They unanimously agree that the time they spend playing football at 40,000 feet is the best day of their lives and make plans to fly around the world together. The popular class president, affected intellectual and ostracized outsider now become inseparable, deriving a kicky delight from their collective secret. The development of superpowers is treated like a glorified form of aptitude testing (“What are you capable of?” the movie ads ask, like military recruiting posters). Whatever that space probe did to them has intensified the boys’ pre-existing characters, talents and temperament, inclinations toward good or evil, heroism or villainy, giving us a glimpse into the sort of supermen they might become. This is most obvious in Andrew of course, who was initially so undefined and tamped down his personality hadn’t been allowed to develop normally. But I wish scriptwriters Landis and Trank had developed the potential of the other two characters as extensively.
Though he’s been reduced to secondary lead, Chronicle is by rights as much Matt’s story as Andrew’s. His character arc, while more subdued, is just as dramatically powerful. Matt is the sort of affected intellectual who sprinkles inappropriate references to Jung, Schopenhauer and Plato into light and facile high school conversation in order to elevate it. At the party, he can be heard throwing around his pretensions as if they were pickup lines. Matt believes his high brow airs are a political act, a rejection of the equally false high school social pretenses. As he explains it to Casey, a skeptical girl he’s attracted to, “Popularity seemed this weird backward contest and I thought since I knew that, I could…separate myself.” Like her we can see right through his bluff however. It’s all an act.
Despite his assertion that he’s above the typical teenage clamor to be cool, Matt is still ashamed to publicly associate with Andrew, afraid that being seen in the presence of such a socially maladjusted misfit might damage his reputation. Though he thoughtfully picks up his cousin for school every day, he invents excuses to hang back awhile, so he won’t actually have to walk into the building with him. He invites him to the rave but is mortified at the prospect of this goofy doofus following him around all night with a camera, and so ditches him the first chance he gets (“I thought you wanted me to come with you!”). Despite his affectations of intellectual superiority, Matt is just as concerned with projecting a cool image as any other superficial teenager in his class. Matt’s no hero; we can see he’s made of too weak moral fiber. Lacking integrity, he’s susceptible to bending in whichever direction peer pressure points him. Matt, who had been embarrassed when Andrew brought his video camera to the party, for instance, suddenly changes his tune. He deigns to acknowledge his cousin when he sees Casey had the same idea, and is filming the event for her blog. He self-consciously quotes Jung’s opinion that parties express a need for social validation, but it’s only the sight of this popular girl holding a camera herself that validates Andrew’s actions in Matt’s mind. And this interaction affords us our first glimpse at varying viewpoints, as Andrew finds himself shooting Casey, who is simultaneously shooting him, leaving editor Elliot Greenberg to crosscut between their mismatched shots. As Andrew becomes more socially interactive, it’s Matt who takes his place behind the camera, despite his earlier hesitancy concerning it. Though he rhetorically asks “When did I become the one out here, filming myself?” he’s likely attracted to the idea because it gives him something in common with Casey, who he’s interested in getting closer to. He’ll find himself on the opposite side of the screen, standing right next to her, as they both film Andrew’s act for the talent show. By movie’s end, he’s fully taken over documenting duties, completing the chronicle his cousin had started.
Matt, who had assumed an attitude of aloofness beforehand, becomes less and less concerned with his reputation. Not afraid to look silly and make a fool of himself, he behaves in a more immature fashion befitting his age, affording actor Russell an amusing vaudeville routine when he tries to master the art of levitation and keeps falling flat on his face. His Matt’s no longer embarrassed to be seen in the company of his cousin or appear on video himself, about which he’d initially seemed reluctant. He becomes more down to earth, accepting that he’s not superior to anyone else at school, around the same time Andrew begins believing he is.
Under the positive influence of politically active Casey, Matt becomes more and more altruistic and involved. In his final confessional, he even vows to be a better person, pledging to use his power to do good, the way other graduates want to make a positive impact on the world by joining Greenpeace or the Red Cross. We witness the genesis of a superhero in Matt, same as we see Andrew deteriorate into his supervillain arch nemesis, and for novelty, the movie places its dramatic stress on the experiences of the latter. Which means it fails to give equal playtime to weak-willed Matt’s ethical tug-of-war between using his powers for evil like Andrew, or good like Steve. The popular Steve, who is in the running for class president, was already a natural leader, so he’s far more open and easily acclimatized to the heroic scale of possessing superpowers. With his gilded existence, he’s flying so high from the outset that the physical act of levitation practically completes him. Superpowers seem a logical, if exaggerated, extension of this idolized campus hero, who already appears so gifted and larger than life.
He’s high school celebrity, so much so that when Steve asks to use his camera to film the crater they’ve found, Andrew can hardly believe he knows his name or that he remembers him from home room. Steve’s natural inclination is to use his powers for good, whereas Andrew begins using his for evil. It’s Steve who takes the initiative of rescuing that road hog whose truck Andrew sends careening into the lake, for instance. He will serve as mentor to Andrew, showing him more positive and productive ways to use his powers. Steve tries to draw Andrew out of himself, put him out there so he can meet people, meet girls, convincing him to enter their school talent show to demonstrate to everyone what he’s good at, even lets him borrow his suit and tie. Having taught him how to fly, Steve feels like a proud papa as he sees his boy start to soar on his own.
Steve asks Andrew if he doesn’t feel like filming all the time puts a barrier between him and everyone else, to which Andrew responds “maybe I want a barrier,” before putting the camera aside to film them in a two-shot, eliminating the divide. The camera serves as buffer. It’s Andrew’s way of keeping his sorry reality at a safe distance, allowing him to stand apart as a coolly detached, objective observer, as intellectual snob Matt sought to do. The figure we see in fits and starts, hiding behind the lens, is intended to be less than impressive. Huddled in his grey hoodie, with a stringy blond mop of uncombed hair and sloe, cold eyes that make him appear both vaguely dim and emotionally anesthetized, Andrew hardly seems to be there at all. As he begins feeling safer and more accepted, however, he’ll no longer feel the need to hide, gradually venturing out in front of the lens, becoming a willing participant in his own life. He becomes incandescent on camera, his humor and personality shining through in a way they never seem to at other times, having been beaten down by life. This gives Dane DeHaan, who plays him, the chance to demonstrate his own star presence. His signature performance here was impressive enough to snag him the role of friend-turned-nemesis Harry Osborn (the old James Franco part) in The Amazing Spider-Man sequel.
Being the hit of the talent show serves the same purpose for Andrew that prom queen election did for Carrie. This guy who felt invisible before is basking in the afterglow of being the center of attention for the first time in his life. Meanwhile, we wait to see what is going to set him off and force him to turn the fire hoses on everyone. Though nobody drops a bucket of pig’s blood on him, his sexual humiliation when he’s unable to perform with Monica at the after party serves as a suitable male equivalent, incensing him just as much. They all laugh at him, or at least Steve does, sparking that mean streak Matt earlier mentioned.
Our initial introduction to the movie is a view of Andrew setting up his camera for the first time, training it on the mirror hanging from his locked door, as his drunken father bangs for admittance on the other side. Before the events he chronicles take a dramatic departure, Andrew’s main intent seems to be capturing evidence of his abuse, as inducement for his dad to leave him alone (“I’m filming this. I bought a camera and I’m filming everything from here on out.”). Andrew thinks his father will be too scared to hit him on camera, the way other abusive parents try not to leave incriminating marks and bruises as evidence.
So when his dad barges into his room that night and beats him senseless in full view of the video lens, reducing that idea to shambles, we can commiserate with Andrew and share his fear of a man so unhinged he has no concern if his actions are recorded for the record. If the threat of child abuse charges and possible prison time can’t deter him, there seems nothing to keep him in line. Though the three friends agree not to use their powers in anger, Andrew must do so when his father starts whaling on him, though he holds back the full force of his wrath (“I could crush you, you know that?”). Turning his anger on the central source of his hostility for the first time seems a positive step in the right direction.
At night, when he listens to his father haranguing doctors over the phone for help with his dying mother, Andrew tries to find freedom from his oppressive existence by floating the camera around the room untethered, but it falls on the bed like a dead weight when the conversation becomes too depressing to bear. Despite all the capabilities at his command, Andrew is powerless to do anything to help his mother. He can only express his concern by using his telekinesis to tuck her in at night. Trying to secure the money to purchase her much-needed medications, he turns to robbery (though why he doesn’t simply use his powers to lift the meds directly is anyone’s guess). Before life and events soured him on people, Andrew had demonstrated an aptitude for heroics on par with Steve’s, even saving the other boy’s life when he was hit by that plane, a fact which softens, to our mind, his later, accidental death. This former superzero had given every indication of turning into a legitimate caped crusader, champion of the weak, poor and downtrodden. Sensitized to their plight by his personal experiences, he should want to defend the very sort of lost souls he himself once was, before paranormal powers set him apart. But by turning to robbery, he reneges on that promise. He ends up doing the wrong things for the right reasons.
When Andrew starts to turn, it’s no coincidence that he creates his ‘supervillain’ guise out of his father’s old work gear. It’s indicative of the way he sees the old man. This former firefighter who used to save people’s lives, has become a loathsome anti-hero in his son’s eyes. Rather than coming to Andrew’s aid when it’s time to give his wife her medication, for instance, his father takes the opportunity to rifle through his son’s room. Then in the next scene he’s feigning concern and berating his son for hoarding a camera they could sell to pay her mounting medical bills. Though I must say his professed shock doesn’t really wash considering Andrew had never made a secret of the apparatus’ existence, telling his dad he’d bought one and was seen holding the camera right there in the crook of his arm when speaking directly to him before the talent show. Later, Andrew’s father will blame him for being personally responsible for his mother’s death, which is the final straw that pushes him over the edge. His imposing father confronts Andrew, like Piper Laurie in Carrie, as he heads out the door on his way to the big night, voicing his growing suspicions concerning what he’s hiding. But the scene is just allowed to evaporate, despite the threat that he’s going to try to prevent Andrew from going. Taken in by his father’s lies, just as Carrie believed her mother’s, that the other boys aren’t really his friends, Andrew becomes infected by his negativity and ends up lashing out at the very people who are most concerned about him and could save him. Though Steve flies into the darkening skies to try to talk him down after his fight with his father, the mistrustful Andrew accuses “You were never my friend before any of this.” And though Matt, unbeknownst to his cousin, had confided his concerns directly to the camera (“I was worried about you before all this. But things are gonna get so much better for you now. I really, really feel that.”), Andrew turns on him too, snapping “What do you care?”
Alone after having pushed everybody away, Andrew has only the camera left to talk to. It becomes even more of a confidante, pressed into service as a digital diary. He uses it to chronicle his darkest secrets and feelings, which get deeper and darker as events progress. Relating his theories on alpha predators, he commits his twisted manifesto to film like so many sick wackos in recent memory, who want to leave their lasting mark on the world by obliterating it. Addressing us directly, Andrew turns viewers on the other side of the screen into his unwilling accomplices. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading online about evolution and natural selection and how there’s this thing, it is called the apex predator, and basically what this is, is the strongest animal in the ecosystem. And as human beings we are considered the apex predator, but only because smaller animals can’t feed on us because of weapons and stuff… a lion does not feel guilty when it kills a gazelle. You do not feel guilty when you squash a fly. And I think that means something… I just think that really means something.” It’s a chilling speech, delivered in spellbinding fashion by actor DeHaan, revealing an emotionally detached, increasingly sociopathic personality. For show, he concludes by indifferently wadding up a car as though it were candy wrapper.
Matt, who is reading Arthur Schopenhauer, paraphrases his philosophy that “Basically human beings have to recognize themselves as beings of pure will…” The unseen force that Andrew exerts on the physical world around him is the manifestation of Schopenhauer’s malignant “will,” as he uses his mind to twist matter into a representation of what he would like it to be. Schopenhauer’s concept would go on to greatly influence Nietzsche’s own ideas concerning the will to power, which is the real root of the fascist philosophy Andrew is forming. Casey’s sarcastic “Way to put an analytical, psychology spin on this barn party, Matt. That’s awesome,” is meant to be a put down, but the filmmakers have done the same with their clever deconstruction of comic strip superhero/supervillain tropes.
As the boys soar through the sky above the cloud banks, the visuals clearly recall those used for the Superman movies, which is revealing. Superman was conceived in the 1930’s as a comic strip fulfillment of Nietzsche’s concept of man and superman. Though the character was draped in all-American colors and distanced from its original associations with the onset of WWII, the ‘superman’ concept still played into the same beliefs being advanced by the Nazis at the time, concerning a master race superior to mortal men in all ways. Perhaps because it’s not strictly a ‘genre’ film in the traditional sense, Chronicle is one of the few superhero movies to pick up on this long neglected theme and fly with it. Filming him by the shore, his dying mother had asked Andrew to repeat the self-affirmation that he was stronger than the sorry situation life had placed him in. But ironically it’s these heartfelt words meant to motivate him that instead induce Andrew to start stretching and strengthening his power in order to exert his dominance over others.
When Matt informed the other boys he’d been exercising his mind, Steve responded that he’d been working out too, correlating their psychokinesis with lifting and benching, muscular development. Regarding their power, Matt theorizes “If you stretch it too far, too fast, it will tear. That’s why I feel we’re getting stronger. Working it out, getting buff.” Carried away by his growing strength, might makes right as far as former weakling Andrew is concerned. The victim has begun to see himself as the predator. After his success in the talent show, Matt had played Greek chorus to his cousin, cautioning, “Your head is exploding right now. This is the beginning of your downfall – hubris.” A word Andrew feigns not to understand but will become intimately acquainted with as the prediction proves eerily accurate. His superhuman abilities make Andrew feel all-powerful, inducing him to regard himself as a superior being.
Having risen above the herd, he believes the laws that govern the rest of humanity shouldn’t apply to his own conduct. He’s become a law unto himself, and isn’t accountable to anyone, not even Matt who tries to impose rules to control his actions, which a megalomaniacal Andrew brazenly defies with “Don’t tell me what to do, Matt. You can’t tell me what to do… You can’t do anything, because I’m stronger than you are.” Though the three had agreed not to use their powers on living things, Andrew will draw and quarter a spider in frustration at his helplessness as he listens to his sick mother’s hacking cough in the next room. Though they had agreed not to display their powers publicly, Andrew cavalierly performs in front of an entire fleet of news cameras as he flies about the city at the end causing havoc. And because he’s angry all the time he only ever uses his powers in wrath and fury, breaking the final cardinal rule. Andrew will justify his actions by throwing Matt’s advice back in his face, telling him he can’t just impose arbitrary rules when he’s the one who told him that nothing mattered anyway, according to Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Through Andrew we get an unsettling glimpse at the dark side of unlimited power, a life without rules or constraints where the unchecked will is permitted to run rampant. Having succumbed to his hubris, Andrew believes himself to be Nietzsche’s superman, selected by nature as the next step in human evolution, and destined to replace mankind at the top of the food chain (“Your weak Matt! You’re all weak! I am stronger than you! I’m an apex predator.”). Seeing himself as a morally autonomous overlord, there’s no telling what he intends to do next. World domination might be on his mind since simply using his powers to channel unchecked hostility seems too limiting a prospect.
Andrew, who always felt so ineffectual before, becomes intoxicated by his new-found power and obsessed with pushing his psychokinesis to its absolute limit. Akin to Fairuza Balk in The Craft, we can see him losing command of himself, as his overtaxed mental faculties begin eroding his mind, giving him delusions of grandeur. It’s not enough that he’s able to defend himself now; Andrew wants to exact vengeance on all the people who have hurt him in the past, all the societal forces that contributed to turning him into the monster he’s become. Andrew is living out some homicidal revenge of the nerd fantasy. People can’t hurt him anymore because he’s developed too thick a skin. He’s become physically impervious to pain.
It’s never clear if what happened to him in that cave is responsible for the rapid deterioration of Andrew’s mind, or if the cause could be traced back to his extenuating circumstances and dysfunctional home life. One never knows exactly what it is that drives someone like this over the edge. Perhaps it’s simply a case of absolute power corrupting absolutely. Either way, it’s fascinating watching the character psychologically devolve before our eyes. Though he frightens us with his burned, bandaged body and crazy stare, looking like the monster he’s believed to have become, we realize, like Matt, that Andrew is no longer responsible for his actions, that he’s too sick and tormented by inner demons to realize what he’s doing. He’s reacting like a wounded animal.
Vainly wishing something could be done to help him, we can still feel Andrew’s pain when he screams at the pursing authorities, all the forces arrayed against him, to just leave him alone. We can see that they’re forcing him to lash out by refusing to back down, and the toll using his power in his weakened state is taking on him. But with his psychokinesis spinning out of control, we also know Andrew has become too great a threat to others, and needs to be put down. DeHaan manages to invoke a startling mixture of fear, pity and anger in viewers at his character’s loose cannon behavior. He possesses the preternaturally intuitive dramatic power of a young Leonardo DiCaprio (who he occasionally resembles), around the time he appeared in This Boy’s Life. It’s a skilled, surprisingly graceful performance. The actor delivers his early dialogue in an unvarying, deceptive low range, so it’s all the more shocking at the end when his wounded bellows have the strength to shatter glass.
It’s not hard to find echoes of Columbine in this story of the high school misfit who can just take so much abuse before he snaps. There’s no need to carry firearms around when all Andrew has to do is form a gun with his fingers and pretend to shoot, in order to cause physical damage. As he chortles appreciatively over his grisly broken tooth trophy, his hands covered with gore and blood, he might be a maniacal mass murderer in some slasher movie. He describes his initial attempt as sloppy, leaving little doubt that he intends to refine his technique in future. Given this frame of reference, Chronicle seems only a slightly skewed variation on other Columbine-inspired films like Elephant and We Need to Talk About Kevin. The police showdown at the end however, stretches even further back, to the heyday of juvenile delinquent dramas in the 50’s. If anything, it brings to mind the cinema’s seminal troubled youth opus, Rebel without a Cause, with the trigger happy authorities cornering the fugitive teens and Matt screaming at them not to shoot the unhinged Andrew, same as James Dean unsuccessfully tried to convince them not to do to Sal Mineo’s Plato.
This action-packed, imaginatively choreographed showdown between superhero and supervillain has purposefully been given the look of fake viral video purporting to have captured irrefutable evidence of the supernatural, one occasionally runs across online. When the embattled boys burst through onlookers’ windows and floors, oblivious to the property damage they’re causing, the scenes seem intended to recall disaster footage captured by people on the fly, in the varying media formats we’ve all become accustomed to. This ending is not unlike Cloverfield, reset in Seattle. Matt and Casey pick their way through the deserted downtown streets as helicopters and buses spin out of control, and cops are sent flying in all directions. Knowing he’s the only person who can stop him, Matt finally manages to bring Andrew to bay, but the method he uses to go about it fails to do justice to Seattle’s most famous landmark. Having flown up the Space Needle, like King Kong conquering the Empire State Building, we can’t shake the feeling that if Andrew’s cousin were going to skewer the despotic little demon seed anyway, taking full advantage of the Needle’s point would have been the most unforgettably iconic way to do it, an impalement for the ages.
All this cam footage, supposedly recorded on the cuff, gives the film an excuse to make jumpy cuts and amateurish, harsh photographic choices, without bothering to smooth out the rough edges. Chronicle wears its grungy lack of polish with such defiant pride one might almost mistake it for an underground indie. The fact that the boring parts have been excised is self-evident and the editing only draws attention to itself badly in one rhythmless scene, where Matt swoops into Andrew’s bedroom to confront him following Steve’s death. The dark lighting and shaky, unsteady framing of handheld video footage can disguise much that’s not up to standard, but the majority of the effects, such as the initial levitation, seem truly marvelous, even though we’re pretty sure the boys are being hoisted by piano wire from a crane. With everything else looking so realistic, phony, overly ambitious FX would have stood out by jarring contrast. Just keeping them to a minimum makes the movie’s own magic tricks seem that much more believable. In our day and age, with its surplus of overindulged CG, Chronicle seems to have rediscovered the art of Spartan simplicity. For the first part of the film, star DeHaan is largely hidden behind the camera, the only shots we see of him being when he trains the lens on the rearview mirror in the car, the dressing mirror on his bedroom door, or when the camera is accosted by those bullies who turn it on him, reversing the voyeuristic power dynamics between the watcher and the watched. Occasionally this technique recalls the subjective point-of-view camerawork experimented with in such movies as Lady in the Lake and the opening minutes of Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
But where this technique has proven so limiting in the past, creating an air of artistic claustrophobia by restricting our view to only a few visual vantage points, Chronicle has found a rather ingenious way to open it up. With broadcast and social media being as prevalent as it is today, this mini-epic finds an infinite number of vantages from which to tell its story. And it’s fun watching the resourceful filmmakers figure out new and ingenious ways to place their candid cameras in prime positions, from which they can get all the shots they need.
In addition to Andrew’s own video chronicle, we’re given images from convenience store security cameras, hospital tapes, iPhones, TV news footage, police dashboard cams, all of which helps to fill in the bigger picture. Each has its own individual, wildly varying visual schematic to clue us in on where the unfolding events were captured and by whom, keeping the technique consistently inventive and imaginative. The varying accounts of so many multi-cameras provide a relatively seamless chronicle of events from beginning to end.
In fact, the very prevalence and accessibility of recording media in contemporary culture provides the basis for the movie’s most strikingly iconographic image as Andrew, floating outside the Space Needle, uses his telekinetic powers to draw to him all the phones from the spectators inside. Their focal point, he finds himself in the spotlight for the second time in his life, a magnet for negative attention. As the iPhones and Androids encircle him like a mobile cloud, the camera takes on their various views and perspectives, providing the astonished world with video that’s destined to go viral.
The wide world at large seems to have served on principal photography, but what we’re really seeing is the superhuman genius of cinematographer Jensen, who simulated all this faux-for real footage, as well as editor Greenberg, who performed the Herculean task of chronologically collating it into cohesive form. By the end, viewers will likely have become so enrapt in the action they’ll fail to register that the movie has fully spiraled out, showing us images and angles that couldn’t possibly have been captured by any third-party camera. Chronicle is about superheroes on the surface, but its subtext just as easily serves as satire on the proliferation of mass media in our modern world. Andrew himself seems to become one with his camera; it’s an extension of him. Which is why it’s such a nice gesture that Matt should leave it in Tibet, somewhere his cousin said he’d always wanted to visit. He claimed the location appealed to him because the Buddhist monks, many of whose basic tenets were appropriated by Schopenhauer, had achieved such a heightened sense of enlightenment. He thinks it would be tranquil, which is all he really wants after the turbulent life he’s led. It seems the ideal place to rest in peace for eternity, and as long as his camera made it, then Andrew’s spirit completed its journey as well. With his recorder piked up in the snow, we can’t imagine a more appropriate gravestone.