Chronicle February 12, 2012

Tonight I saw Chronicle. My spoiler-free review is that I liked it and would give it a B, not because it is at all a well rounded film but because the few things it did well it did well in a special way that I expect to remember for a long time. For my spoiler-filled review, in which I sum up the basics of the narrative but do not explicitly spell out highly specific plot points, keep reading:

In Chroncile, Andrew, a teenager with an abusive alcoholic father and a sick mother who is near death buys a digital video recorder and resolves to record everything in his life, from his dysfunctional relationships to the mundane aspects of his daily routines. Shortly thereafter he and two friends acquire telekinetic powers (through thoroughly unimaginative means) and the three of them video their experiments with their powers as they steadily grow. Eventually, as the commercials make pretty clear, Andrew grows increasingly malignant. As someone who learned about power by being on the receiving end of bullying, it does not take very long for him to interpret the possibilities of his super powers as involving dominating others and venting his resentments.

The film’s gimmick of presenting the entire story through homemade footage has a dual effect. It adds an extraordinary immediacy and reality to their discoveries of their powers. The video quality is not actually homemade, it is professional so it is not as hard on the eyes and exhausting as it could be. But the use of homemade angles and perspective gives a credibility to the reality of the scenes which makes super hero powers we’ve seen a zillion times seem like fresh discoveries because of the way they so convincingly emerge within a believable reality. The special effects are never distracting. They feel part as much a part of the real world as possible.

And the film does not rush the characters to phenomenal feats but squeezes each stage in their development of powers for all the juice they have. There’s a real savoring of the stages. Especially intense are their early excursions into flying. These vicarous experiences were incredibly visceral. It was all very evocative of Superman but with all the real world thrill and immediacy of these home made sky divers’ videos which I used to watch in high school. There is a sense of velocity and risk that the illusion of amateur photography creates coupled with heroes who, unlike the unflappable cool and serene Superman, have just a shaky enough mastery of their powers to keep an everpresent sense of perpetual danger to the sequences. There is a jitteriness and uncertainty to their powers, even as they become more and more seemingly omnipotent towards later parts of the film. There are no scientists or doctors to fill us in on what has happened to them with extraneous expositions or to give us any exact specifications their powers. The narrative stays judiciously down on the organic level of three teenagers’ experimental experiences from start to finish.

And some of the climactic flying scenes in the dark are shot so well that I felt the illusion of movement and height and falling as though I was watching one of those Universal Studios or MGM rides with an actual moving car paired with the screen. The disorienting and disconcerting falling, twisting angles of the faux-homemade camera shots gave the twists and plummets a haphazardness, uncertainty, and limitation of perspective that created the dizzying, frightening, and stomach dropping effects of actually twisting and dropping on a roller coaster. I really came away so impressed with the camera work in the film. It transcended gimmick into the realm of visceral experimental cinéma vérité on a level worth calling artistic. It’s special stuff.

But the cameras are busy. And since they call so much attention to themselves and because as the film goes on the angles they capture are too movie perfect (for reasons made clear but still unconvincing within the narrative itself) they ultimately took me out of the film constantly. So much calling attention to the artifice of the film makes it impossible to suspend belief and experience on an emotional level. I was always with the director trying to figure out how the shots were going to remain plausible. And introducing a perpetually camera wielding love interest for one of the characters, a woman who won’t put down her camera in the most frightening and even life threatening moments, was too far a stretch beyond all believability and amounted to camerawork coming before character development in a probably hitherto unseen way in film history.

So what winds up happening with the camera’s dual effects is that as a viewer I felt like I was brought into specific highly fantastic imaginary sequences in a way no traditional super hero (or other kind of film) ever managed. But I did not really live a story.

There were barely any characters with any screen time or substance. The only character the film remotely bothered to even try painting with any more than one brush was Andrew and despite the available gimmick of the confessional where he might vlog some of his feelings with some degree of intensity, he does little by way of outwardly expressing his emotions or thoughts. And what we get are pretty boilerplate. He has ressentiment and a superman complex. His friend (whose name I never cared to learn and so won’t bother to look up now as though it mattered in the film) likes philosophy and even though he never references Nietzsche, he catches up the audience on some Schopenhauerian basics and references Plato’s cave (curiously right after the moment that I realized they were about to start telling us the Ring of Gyges—so, even though the story had nothing to do with the Allegory of the Cave at least they were right to be thinking there was something to do with Plato’s Republic going on.)

But I digress, the philosophy references are neon signs and not developed very interestingly. And Andrew’s motives and the extent of his superman complex are supremely confused. Towards the end of the film he is sociopathically malevolent and yet he only spends this energy on trivial acts of bullying and old car junking while the mother he is desperate to save is dying. It takes him unrealistically long to turn to the criminal acts that it will take to save her and when he does take this turn he shows an idiotic lack of sophistication. Given the extent of his powers at this point in the film, stealing should be a profitable cinch. It’s only for ultimately unconvincing narrative purposes that his crime spree is violent and attention grabbing in ways that lead to his total unraveling. And the choice to have him turn to sympathetic crimes to pay for his mother’s medications only after he has become completely willing to cross moral lines with his powers makes any emotional complications of his turning to crime uncompelling. Maybe this is actually what a jumble of real life motives would actually work like but they don’t make for coherent narrative or illuminating psychology.

In the end the film feels like a solid fifteen minutes of rising action before the climax was denied us. The film’s rewardingly patient pace is abruptly abandoned and the descent into madness and chaos is comparatively too steep and unsatisfying. Andrew’s friends are so poorly developed that they are hard to get beyond with any attachment when they are our only hope and one of them is simply dispatched with so relatively early, suddenly, arbitrarily, and unceremoniously in the film as to not even be emotionally affecting but just bewildering.

And on a possibly more trivial note, one of the most annoying aspects of the film is that it is one of those where all its most visceral plot twists are equisitely laid out in the omnipresent commercials and any potential surprise and impact they might have had were lost for me. So, hopefully if you see the film, you haven’t seen the commercials.

Sum: All in all the film is worth seeing in the theaters for its bold commitment to perspectival storytelling. Familiar fantasy experiences are given a rare sense of real life immediacy and possibility that I thought made for a real vicarious rush that were in themselves worth the price of admission. This was as real world as telekinesis and flying could feel. The villain is mildly menacing, but ultimately just a sketch of a character. And he’s the film’s only character. The characters who could have been the heroes are utterly flat, undefined afterthoughts. The film feels unfinished at a lazy 83 minutes. Crucial character development and rising action could have led to greater pay off for what starts off as a well-paced film. The camera work is both the reason to see the film from a film perspective but it is also the source of constant detachment as the self aware artifice makes suspension of disbelief for the overall narrative nigh impossible. And towards the end, the logic of the tricks used to keep the gimmick working becomes too threadbare even to be a successful exercise in puzzle solving.

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