04 February 2012

Review: Chronicle

Chronicle is a good movie with many flaws that prevent it from being great, even amazing. The premise and acting is strong enough that, if you look closely, one could see a powerfully emotive cinematic spectre rising from the expired body of a gritty proto-hero flick that simply settled for good enough. The movie plays out like a five-minute dance number on stage for ten; midway through, the choreographed confidence gives way to discord and improvisation. After the wind has stopped blowing, the tale is left sailing on the momentum of its intriguing story, sent to run ashore on the jagged rocks of clunky endings with its captain nowhere in sight. House arrest is too good a fate for abandoning this ship.

There aren’t many main characters in Hollywood named Andrew, so I was a little chagrined to watch someone who bears the same name as me also turn out to be an awkward, skinny teenager with no friends. I’d be interested to see a study about the names of characters in fiction and their accompanying traits. Would “Steve” and “Matt,” the names of the other two main characters in the story, be associated more often with macho characteristics than “Andrew?” Someone make this happen.

---- Beyond this point lie spoilers! I’m serious. I give away the whole movie. ----

It’s clear from the beginning, because Director Josh Trank is so heavy handed in conveying this, that Andrew is a textbook one-dimensional time bomb; Columbine made simple. His dad is a disabled drunk who beats up on him, kids bully him at school, girls think he’s creepy, and even his own cousin Matt only tolerates him up to the point where it doesn’t affect his popularity. Andrew, who has adopted the awkward hobby of chronicling his life on video, is coaxed from a self-loathing stupor by soon-to-be Class President Steve, who ushers him deep into the woods to chase down something that he and Matt had just discovered. And wouldn’t you know it, all three of them end up with telekinesis and confusingly indestructible-yet-totally-vulnerable skin.

Matt actually turns out to be the most intriguing character as the handsome stud who quotes philosophy, has a human sense of compassion, and exercises admirable restraint when coping with his new super powers. If there was a true super hero among them, he would be it. Steve is not far behind as the perfect mix of football star and politician who eventually manages to see Andrew for more than an emotional punching bag. If only we could, too. It’s as if the writer and director couldn’t identify with Andrew themselves, so they wrote him at arm’s length while adorning the hearts-of-gold jocks with the real humanity.

To his credit, Trank is able to keep a very satisfying pace through the first half of the movie despite a very distinct lack of action or obvious conflict. What keeps it exciting are the moments of self-discovery of those super powers that both inspire the audience with wonder and help the three amigos to bond. But something is always amiss, and Andrew goes and screws up the good time by getting all depressed and sending a truck down an embankment. A bit of drama ensues, but then, inexplicably, all is forgiven and we’re back to joyful, sporting displays of enviable abilities. It was as if Trank knew he was missing some action, so he cut the truck scene from its original spot toward the end and slapped it in the middle of all the saccharine moments.

It’s this little hiccup that doesn’t sit right as a viewer because, the next thing you know, even the super powers have jumped the shark as they’re now being used (in addition to shoddy CG animation) to win a high school talent show. This was Steve’s plan, you see, to get Andrew laid. And it works out well, as Andrew then uses his powers to impress a girl (played by an actress who is clearly well into her 20’s) at the ensuing house party. Usually they save these sorts of shenanigans for the sequel.

Alas, the crowning moment of unintended awkwardness explodes in our face as Andrew’s new amour rushes past Steve, covered in some sort of liquid with a curious consistency and is visibly traumatized. When Steve enters the room, we find Andrew also covered in the same conspicuously colored liquid. I’m not gonna lie. Here’s what I (and other theater-goers) thought happened: Andrew got a little too excited and he busted a premature super-powered nut all over the girl and himself. It isn’t definitively revealed until later that he actually vomited. Silly me for thinking such vulgar thoughts.

The humiliation eventually makes Andrew snap like a piece of cheap lawn furniture at a Mississippi family reunion and he flies off into the center of a thunder storm. Steve manages to find him and even Andrew is incredulous about how he managed to do this. And then, as Andrew’s fury reaches a crescendo, Steve is dead. His funeral, by the way, is suspiciously lacking in fellow dark-skinned people. The emotional impact is stunted. Even Matt, the one person who suspects Andrew, is curiously docile.

Another thing that the writers failed to identify with is the intelligence of teenagers. We’re talking about overachieving Seattle suburban affluent high schoolers here. Not only do they not, between the three of them, previously know the word “telekinesis,” but as soon as Andrew learns that he needs $700 to pay for his mother’s medication, his first instinct is to shake down the local corner gang for pocket change, followed by a gas station. I might have over a decade of experience on this Andrew, but I really don’t think that 17 year old me would be so lacking in originality, not to mention practicality. Why steal money to buy the meds when you can just steal the meds?

The gas station stunt lands Andrew in the hospital, leaving me curious about an earlier scene that demonstrated how the trio’s skin was impenetrable. So far, our heroes are striking out with their real-world durability. Andrew’s father shows up to unleash some of his over-the-top parental abuse (I don’t mean to take it lightly, it just wasn’t very well executed.) which results in Andrew blowing the wall off of his hospital room. Oddly, he waits until Matt has hopped into a car and driven all the way to downtown Seattle to actually leave the room and toss his father to the ground below. Yes, this happens right in time to be filmed by another character and also right in time to be thwarted by Matt.

Chronicle attempts to be a movie comprised of entirely “found footage,” a tactic intended to raise the tension and immediacy of the moment, but it ends up becoming a burden when the focus shifts away from Andrew. The solution is a female love interest for Matt who just happens to also be obsessed with catching every waking moment on video. Somehow, we’re supposed to take this at face value when she answers the door with a camera mounted on a tripod behind her. We’re then supposed to really believe her camera was necessary to capture Andrew’s attempted murder on his father, too. As the movie progresses into an overdrawn fight scene that takes place over several locations, through several buildings, Andrew takes the time to steal the cameras from a crowd of bystanders just so that he can film his confrontation with Matt in 360 degrees.

Andrew is now an ugly mess of burns and bruises. At this point I knew he had to die. It wasn’t that he had done something totally horrible. He just looked like a pissed off Raggedy Andy doll after a decade of being handled by foster kids. What I don’t understand is why he had to die in such a meaningless fashion. In the middle of a noisy but essentially harmless tantrum, Matt skewers his cousin with a statue. Seriously. Up to this point, on the super villain scale of things, Andrew had been nothing more than a public nuisance. In fairness, it was probably the only way to get him to stop screaming.

Not much needed to change in order to make this film great, but unfortunately movies don’t get re-dos. What could have been a fantastic exploration of the torment experienced by a bullying victim was somehow exploited into a cop-out psychotic delusion. What could have been a study on the behavior of modern teenagers was turned into a same-ol’ Hollywood flick that simply skated by on the power of its premise. Oh well. At least we got to dream about having super powers for a while.