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Chronicle (2012)

If I Go Crazy, Then Will You Still Call me "Superman"?

Though both genres have run their entertainment value into the ground, we still find ourselves awash in found-footage and superhero movies. Iron Man 2 blew and Thor was a snore, but studio wisdom holds that stuffing The Avengers with even more magical muscle-men will inherently make their adventures worthwhile. And though I liked The Last Exorcism and the last Paranormal Activity movie, I'm not chomping at the bit to see what happens next in these spooky, shaky-cam epics.

So, what could be worse than the found-footage superhero movie, Chronicle?

The more appropriate question is, what could be better? Just as The Dark Knight Returns and The Watchmen swooped in to save a zombified comic-book industry in 1986, director Josh Trank and co-writer Max Landis have created a thrilling, touching adventure story that both comments on and elevates the genres in which they dabble.

The film stars Dane DeHaan as Andrew, a lonely Seattle teen who suffers abuse at the hands of his alcoholic, ex-firefighter dad (Michael Kelly). The family lives hand-to-mouth, as the old man scrapes together every penny of disability to pay for his dying wife's medication--as well as his own chemical therapy of choice, beer. Andrew gathers enough cash to buy an old video camera, which he uses to document his terrible home life and the humiliations he endures as a high school outcast.

One night, he and his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), attend a barn party. Towards the end of the evening, Matt and class-president-front-runner Steve (Michael B. Jordan) discover a hole in the ground; they goad Andrew into exploring it with his camera, and soon the boys find themselves face to face with a glowing alien artifact. We see black tentacles peel off its crystal spikes before interference causes the camera to short out. The footage picks up three weeks later in Matt's back yard, capturing a series of telekinesis tests that the boys have devised for their newfound superhuman abilities.

As you might expect, the teens don't handle their powers well. What begins as showing off for one another progresses to playing pranks on unsuspecting shoppers at the local mall, and ends with Matt having to establish rules for how the group uses their godlike strengths. Andrew has the hardest time with this, as his powers have done nothing to enhance his social skills or prospects at getting out of his house without bruises. Unlike Matt and Steve, who were gifted in several areas before their encounter with the cosmic rock, Andrew still feels out of place and almost entitled to abuse--despite his ability to, say, separate a spider into its component elements in mid-air.

Going further would spoil the joy of discovering Chronicle for yourself. This movie gets so much right that others get wrong, and it's a delight watching Trank and Landis deftly sidestep obvious pitfalls. One of the most common charges leveled against found-footage movies is that regular people simply don't make a habit of filming everything--especially when their lives are in danger. Right off the bat, the creators establish Andrew as an odd bird, a freak who insists on getting everything on film--possibly because he's seen too many found-footage movies.

I also like that there are significant time lapses here. The three weeks between the alien encounter and the boys' tests are lost because Andrew's first camera was destroyed, and it took him awhile to find a suitable replacement. Later, Matt's classmate and severe crush, Ashley (Casey Letter), pops up with her own camera--which she uses to document major senior-year events. She, too, is always filming as a way of improving her skills, leading to not only a cool dueling-cameras motif, but also a relief from Alex's point of view. Chronicle breathes as the filmmakers allow their story to take shape over several months, rather than condensing the action into an unrealistic time frame.

More importantly, the movie is a compelling character study way before people start moving things with their minds. We feel not only sorry for Andrew, but hopeful that he'll either stand up to his father or strike out on his own with his dignity intact. His is a classic case of power corrupting the innocent, and we watch in horror and sadness as his rage finds its voice, which becomes a scream. This is what George Lucas should have aimed for with Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. Too bad a couple of young film geeks accomplished in eighty minutes what he couldn't in six hours.

At the heart of the film's success is its terrific cast. DeHaan is mesmerizing as Andrew. He turns the stock Columbine-kid archetype into a fully fleshed-out young man with deep problems. As his friends-in-powers, Jordan and Russell create complex, likable contrasts. Matt is the soulful genius who doesn't want to be seen as a nerd, and Steve is the most popular kid in school, who got that way by being a genuinely nice guy. I believed this strange and beautiful relationship, thanks to Landis' keen insight into the sometimes awkward but adamantium-strong bonds that bring teenagers together. The way they bicker, laugh, and confide in one another isn't easy melodrama or comic-book-movie hackery; it's the real thing.

My only gripe with Chronicle--and it's not necessarily a fair one--is that some of the special effects are downright dodgy. The levitating objects, in particular, are rendered with weird, conspicuous shadows that pull them right out of the frame and the audience right out of some pretty key moments. Had the film been endowed with a much larger budget, I'm sure these wouldn't have been a problem.

On the plus side, the scenes in which the boys fly are simply amazing. My dizziness and fluttered stomach were enough to convince me that 3D is a money-sucking joke. Trank, cinematographer Matthew Jensen, and the digital effects team create a wonderful, weightless experience that I don't think I've ever experienced before in a non-IMAX movie. I can only imagine Zach Snyder seeing this and subsequently pulling the plug on his new Superman film--or at least going back to the effects drawing board.

Speaking of Supes, it's a wonder Fox didn't get sued by Warner Brothers (DC Comics' parent company). Chronicle is the best non-Superman Superman origin story I've seen, and the parallels are undeniable. Beginning with the look of the alien artifact (a dead ringer for the craft that bought baby Kal-El to Earth in Richard Donner's film adaptation) and ending with a closing shot that is a metaphorical (and nearly literal) Fortress of Solitude, Trank and Landis sneak lots of perhaps unintentional references into their mythos. Indeed, Andrew is essentially Lex Luthor by way of Carrie White, with a dash of Superman's origin for flavor.

None of this matters, though. I appreciate a good influence bouillabaisse, as long as it's compelling and the result at least feels original. That's definitely the case here. If you've just about given up on capes and camcorders, I urge you to give Chronicle a try. I have little interest in a sequel or further attempts to tweak this genre hybrid, but the movie surprised me immensely--truly a superhuman feat for the ages.

Note: The one minor trap that Trank and Landis don't escape is the question of who found and edited their characters' footage. So far, the only such movie I've seen successfully address this issue is Cloverfield.

Douchebag Question: For those of you who've seen Chronicle--is it me, or does DeHaan look uncannily like Chloe Moretz in some scenes? It's all about the lips...