“A lion doesn’t feel guilty when it kills a gazelle; you do not feel guilty when you squash a fly.
And I think that means something. I think that really means something…”
Posting this review I feel a little like I’m finally catching up with myself. When I first saw Chronicle last year it was the Kick-Ass of that year, the movie where I just thought, “well that’s it, nothing’s gonna beat that…” but of course it was early days and there was so much more to see and I was in a place where I just wasn’t writing as much as I’d like to, so I told myself I’d have to watch it again “sometime” in order to really write about it. Before I watched it today again it’d slipped all the way down out of my top ten of 2012. Just wrongness all over and further reason I’m glad I didn’t even post that list yet even if it is April (it’s coming, I promise…)
If Batman Begins was the superhero movie stripped back to its core, I don’t know what Chronicle is… it strips it back so far that it melds with other genres and makes it more pertinent than even the best of other recent efforts could hope to touch. A young man who has as hard a time at home from his father as he does from fellow students at school decides to start filming everything – as evidence, as a journal, just because, who knows? His cousin in an effort to bring him into the world takes him to a party – he meets a couple of people more on his level at the party who show him a weird hole in the ground – the next thing we know, they’re all starting to develop strange powers…
The most incredible thing about Chronicle – even more incredible than its budget – is its under 90 minute running time. I’m always impressed by a 90 minute running time, but the scope of the story here is something else. The way things build from cheap home videos to Jackass style pranking to full on airborne effects extravaganza overwhelms me. The Jackass phase of the movie rings particularly true, the pranking in the supermarket made me laugh as much a second time as I did the first even when it gets a little too mean. Of course eventually one of the boys (Andrew, the one with the troubled homelife) goes too far and ends up causing a car crash – perhaps meaning to just give the vehicle beeping at them on a harsh turn a scare, perhaps not.
It’s an early indicator of the inevitable end those who know these stories might see from the start. As I’ve said many times, I think there’s a difference between predictability and inevitability in movies, especially where tragedy is concerned. Tragedy is all the more tragic if you know what’s going to happen but you can’t do anything to stop it. There’s much in Chronicle that owes a debt not to comic book superheroes but psychological horror – in my limited knowledge on that (I’m sure there’s a much earlier common source because there are so many common details) I’m talking about Stephen King and David Cronenberg in particular. John Farris/Brian De Palma’s The Fury comes to mind too. In the troubled young Andrew there are powerful echoes of Carrie or Firestarter‘s Charlene – a body gifted with an ability completely beyond their mind’s comprehension and led astray by the only ideas at hand of how best to use it. It touches on that basic Twilight Zone-y type fear, like what if a toddler had their finger on the big red button? When Andrew talks about the “apex predator” theory, including the line I opened the review with, that’s when this movie really gets scary and beautiful for me.
The powers of the boys are conveyed with startlingly simple but effective visual effects. Even when occasionally they fall outside the realm of believability the images are so grounded in ideas that they still completely capture the imagination. People bundle this movie into the “found footage” genre because of the way it all happens to be filmed by the characters’ own various cameras (going so far as CCTV footage in the final sequence) – I really think this misses one of the movie’s greatest inventions. As the movie progresses Andrew – who has a surprising knack for the more delicate aspects of his power, a fact that makes some of his friends green and jars wonderfully with his wicked leanings – learns how to hold the camera in midair at a distance. This results in the camerawork becoming more cinematic as the movie progresses, as his power grows. We end up watching from what we would usually term a “crane” angle in scenes ending with Andrew flying up towards the camera and grabbing it to take with him as he passes. We associate the camera with Andrew so completely that in the end (without spoiling things), Andrew becomes the camera. Despite how cutting edge this movie is, I find something about this to be completely, almost profoundly, cinematic.
There are astonishing images in this movie – Andrew blowing apart a spider into its component parts with the muffled sound of his dying mother coughing in pain in another room; or the Space Needle in Seattle, its lights going out, the glass shattering into a mist from which Andrew emerges. What really makes it one of the best movies of 2012 for me, though, is the strength of character that makes this so much more a tragedy than a spectacle. There are no good or bad people here – just victims of circumstance, opportunity and instinct. It’s incredible to me how anyone squeezed so much joy, sadness, scale, and minutia into just 80 minutes.