One of the central tenets of both the X-Men comic books and the films spawned from them is that humans are terrified of mutants. Their special powers set them apart from the rest of humanity, and in many powerless human's minds, that makes them a threat. With X-Men, we generally tend to side with the mutant race, since they have Charles Xavier around to teach his X-Men about how to use their powers for the purposes of good. But what if Professor X weren't around to guide these young powerhouses? What if there were just a bunch of Magnetos, Juggernauts, and Pyros running around wreaking havoc on everything? Your opinion might differ slightly, then.
Chronicle attempts to address the idea of impressionable young minds suddenly emboldened by superhuman abilities in a more realistic, less blockbustery fashion. Its method is to delve into the suddenly extremely popular found footage genre, turning its tale of three teens of varying levels of angstiness whose lives are turned upside down by inexplicable telekinetic powers into something of a cross between X-Men: First Class and Cloverfield. It's actually kind of shocking that nobody had thought of it before. Even more shocking is how well Chronicle handles the challenges of its premise.
Initially we meet Andrew (Dane DeHaan) and Matt (Alex Russell), two related suburban Seattle teenagers who are, for various reasons, something of social outcasts. Matt's handsome and not altogether disliked, but also highly invested in reading philosophy texts and quoting to others why this whole world is, like, bullshit, man. Andrew's issues are perhaps a bit more dire. His drunken father regularly abuses him, his sickly mother is on the verge of death, and he's little more than a creepy punching bag for the kids at school. For reasons that mostly seem to exist to carry the plot forward, Andrew begins filming everything around him, including a rave at an abandoned barn that Matt drags him to. Somewhere over the course of that night, they hook up with Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the star school athlete and soon-to-be class president, and find themselves on the outskirts of the property near a mysterious cave that pulses with both light and an imposing sound. See if you can guess what happens next.
Yes, the introduction to all of this is contrived as hell. Thankfully, first time director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of John Landis) don't spend much more time trying to explain away why any of this is any of this. Suffice it to say, mysterious things have suddenly turned them into something other than merely human. It starts off small, with them simply tossing baseballs at each other and playing minor pranks on people--that poor girl who suddenly found herself facing a floating, seemingly sentient teddy bear is probably scarred for life--but soon they begin to realize that the more they use their powers, the stronger they get. It's not long before they're learning how to use telekinesis to stop objects from penetrating their bodies, and flying through the sky like bro-dude supermen.
There is perhaps no greater truth than the innate understanding that to everyone but teenagers themselves, teenagers are insufferable creatures that deserve little more than scorn and disdain. Watching realistic teenager behavior is like watching monkeys in the wild fling shit at one another. It's maybe a little bit interesting from an anthropological perspective, but you'll be glad to keep your distance from it.
Credit to both Landis' script and the actors portraying these teens then that you don't find yourself hating them as the movie goes along--except when you're very clearly supposed to. As angsty and overwrought as their behavior can get, they never veer too far into the unlikable category. Their journey of discovery (and eventual conflict) is an entertaining ride that, at times, actually feels pretty authentic. Landis' script has a good sense of the way teenagers think, which is to say that self-gratification tends to take precedence over responsibility or rational thinking. He crafts a number of ridiculous but fun scenarios for them to both come to grips with new abilities, and suddenly realize they have no idea what they're actually doing. When they're flying around in the sky, it seemingly never occurs to them that, hey, an airplane might come tearing through there at some point and knock them back on their hovering asses. The consequences of their powers aren't lost on them, but in an effort to amuse themselves, and even help Andrew become a bit more popular, they aren't opposed to showing off a bit to impress their classmates.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the honeymoon doesn't last. Andrew's grim home life and tortured school life seem like ripe fodder for him to go Columbine times a thousand at just about any moment, and eventually his darker urges take over. He begins comparing his abilities to nature's food chain, and other humans as lower forms of life to be squashed. He scowls, broods, and obliterates with reckless abandon, leading to a showdown between he and Matt in downtown Seattle that combines the chaos and insanity of Cloverfield's better action sequences with a live action rendition of the end of Akira.
The trick, of course, is how Trank chooses to capture all of this. In order to keep up the found footage gimmick, Landis' script has Andrew keeping the camera with him at just about all times, even sometimes having it float above him as he goes about his business. But what about when Andrew isn't around? Landis inserts a minor love interest for Matt, a pretty blonde (Ashley Hinshaw) who also has a penchant for filming random things, purportedly for her blog. And when she isn't around, Trank darts between security cam footage, cop car cameras, and whatever else might be in the vicinity to edit together his more fast-paced action sequences into something surprisingly compelling. It's also pretty hokey and ridiculous, and requires a good bit of suspension of disbelief to completely buy into. But if you're capable of bringing your brain past that one particularly formidable barrier to entry, you'll likely enjoy what Chronicle has to offer.
What happens when a few asshole teenagers get superpowers instead of the usual self-righteous types? This movie seems like a pretty good indication.
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