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WARNING: FOUND SPOILERS
“With great power comes great responsibility,” Ben Parker tells his nephew, Peter, in “Spider-Man” (2002).
“A weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power,” Dr. Carl Erskine tells Steve Rogers in “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011).
Cue Josh Trank and Max Landis (son of Jon), the first-time director and screenwriter of “Chronicle,” clearing their throats.
They imagine a Peter Parker raised by an alcoholic, abusive, former firefighter instead of kindly Uncle Ben. They suggest that a weak man knows the value of strength because it’s been used against him his entire life. And once that strength is his? He might not be so nice as Peter Parker.
I suggested as much in my review of “Captain America” last year. After quoting Erskine’s line I wrote:
I could raise an objection here, and did so, silently, in the theater. I thought of a line from college: “The worst taskmasters are former slaves.” I thought of myself, a skinny Steve Rogers-type most of my childhood, and of my many subsequent resentments. Did Steve have none? Was he that good?
So I should be a fan of what Trank and Landis, both of whom will turn 27 this year, have done with “Chronicle.” They’ve reimagined a superhero storyline in which three teenagers gain powers through telekinesis, and then, rather than put on costumes and fight crime, act like assholes. They film themselves pulling pranks in a toy store: lifting a teddy bear in the air and having it dance before a frightened girl. They move a woman’s car in the parking lot so she has trouble finding it. They do impossible tricks at their high school talent show to become popular. Then they begin fighting each other.
Their story is told through found footage, the point-of-view of the young (and of January/October releases), which means someone, usually Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), our weak teenager who knows the value of strength, always has to be filming what we see. Initially this worked. It lets us know how lonely and abused Andrew is. But the deeper we go into the story the more problematic it becomes. Really? He’s filming this argument? He’s filming this funeral? He’s filming himself crushing this car in the junkyard? If the traditional superhero tends to hide his identity from the world and do good, Andrew tends to film everything for the world and do bad. He’s Peter Parker as supervillain. He’s a male “Carrie” with a camera.
Our other two leads are Andrew’s handsome cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), who likes to pretend he’s not shallow by quoting philosophy 101; and Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), the popular black guy who’s running for class president. Andrew is the pick-upon one. But one night he goes to a party, with camera, and Matt and Steve find a hole in a valley in the woods and bring Andrew along to film what they find. Inside they discover ... well, probably a spaceship. But then things go crazy and zzzzttt, the camera stops working, and when we’re back to filming again in someone’s backyard (with a different camera?), the three teenagers are able to move things with their minds. And Andrew is the strongest of the three.
If they push themselves too far, they get nose bleeds. Sometimes if Andrew pushes himself too far, Matt gets the nose-bleed. So they’re linked symbiotically. When Andrew, for example, finally uses his strength against his abusive father, he immediately uses his telekinesis to move himself into the sky during a lightning storm, where he’s pouting and filming, and where Steve finds him and tries to talk him down. Steve just senses he’s there. Sadly, this is the moment Steve gets zapped and dies, and Andrew, blamed by Matt, turns ever more inward.
Andrew also has a sick mother, like Aunt May, who needs medicine, like Aunt May, but it costs: a $700 co-pay. So where can a boy with super-powers find $700? Well, first he robs the local drug dealers but it’s not enough. (Lousy drug dealers.) Then he robs the local food mart, but the proprietor comes out with shotgun blazing, sets the gas pumps aflame, and sends Andrew to the hospital.
I.e., for a nerdy boy with superpowers, Andrew isn’t the brightest bulb. So what is he?
This may be the biggest problem with “Chronicle.” It’s not that the three teenagers never worry about long-term health issues after exposure to the radiating alien spaceship. It’s not that, with their great power, comes great irresponsibility. It’s not that, of this irresponsibility, none of it is the kind most randy, teenage boys would pull—i.e., removing the clothes of girls, a la “Zapped”—meaning the film feels false even as it strives for authenticity.
No, the biggest problem is that the boys don’t have any identity beyond the initial one. Steve’s the popular black guy, Andrew is the unpopular nerd who likes to film shit, Matt is somewhere in between. And that’s all they ever are.
Does Andrew like comics? Sci-fi? Is he a “Star Trek” or a “Star Wars” guy? Does he read science or poetry? Who knows? He’s just a picked-upon virgin. He has resentments. In one of the movie’s better, creepier moments, he films himself in a bathroom stall analyzing the brutal removal of a bully’s teeth: how that tooth broke in half, too bad, but this one remained whole, which is how you want to do it. A second later the plot kicks in and he’s searching for the $700 and winds up in the hospital, where his father lets him know that his mother died, for which the father blames the son, for which Andrew blows a hole in the side of the hospital and drops the father 10 stories. But Matt’s there to save the father and battle Andrew high above the city of Seattle (Vancouver, B.C.).
At least by this point Andrew has stopped filming. The found footage is now culled from various sources: hospital tapes; the video-blog of a local girl; all of the folks with their cellphones at the top of the Space Needle. This was my first found-footage film and I always assumed the footage in question was found in the same camera. But some imaginary editor obviously went to extraordinary lengths to piece together something fairly shallow.
Yes, Trank and Landis do some smart things with “Chronicle.” The moment when Matt saves Andrew’s father recalls that great scene in the original “Superman: The Movie” (1978) when Superman first saves Lois Lane from the helicopter crash atop the Daily Planet building. There, though, the revelation of a superstrong being who can fly was triumphant, and greeted—absurdly, I would argue—with applause from the crowd below (See No. 2 on this list.) Here it’s kind of creepy. There’s nothing triumphant about it. Everyone’s like ... WTF?!? ... because their world is upended. As it is.
So “Chronicle” has its smart moments. Unfortunately they’re few. Dane DeHaan is a good young actor that has something of a young, sickly Leo DiCaprio about him. Unfortunately he’s playing a shallow character in a lightweight enterprise. One wonders if the movie’s lack of depth is the result of the found-footage formula or the fact that its creators are 26 years old and just aren't that deep.
February 12, 2012
© 2012 Erik Lundegaard