Sunday, February 19, 2012

Film Review: Chronicle

    Near the beginning of Chronicle, the antihero Andrew Detmer is shown holding a red toy lightsaber. He’s similar to Anakin Skywalker in a lot of other ways too. The lightsaber can be seen as foreshadowing of the way Andrew uses his powers.  As I watched this movie set in present-day Washington state, I ticked off a list of its similarities to the story of the galaxy far, far away, especially Revenge of the Sith in particular and the prequels in general. Andrew is an angry teen whose flat affect occasionally makes way for joyful scenes with his friends; his emotional arc culminates with the need to rescue his mother; his best friend becomes the only rival he could ever really have, he wears a suit and mask, and undergoes a trial by fire that leaves him scarred but ready to keep fighting.

    Unlike Star Wars and many other recent movies and franchises (Harry Potter, Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, X-Men, and the Avengers with its SHIELD group), the world of Chronicle had no magical school for its kids to attend. The lesson of the movie, perhaps, is they needed one. Without guidance, what do they do? Goof off and break rules. And when the rules are along the lines of “don’t harm living things with your magic powers”, breaking them has dramatic consequences.

    A juvenile hall for the criminally super-powered would have been hard-pressed to contain Andrew. Along with his friends, the responsible, social Stephen and the philosophical everyman Matt, Andrew discovers that a glowing blue object has gifted him with pretty much the same powers as Super Man. Assuming that the audience knows how a super hero story works leaves the movie’s writers to focus on snappy dialogue that makes the characters sound like real high schoolers.

    The references to the super hero franchises are relatively subtle: Andrew has a couple of sketches of costumed heroes in his bedroom, and the viewer isn’t sure whether he made them before or after he got his own powers. A complete writeup of the symbolism and repeated motifs in the film would by necessity spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that many scenes reference later ones. Some of that symbolism is heavy-handed, but noticing it and guessing how it will be used later is part of the fun. The ending sets itself apart from most finale fights by using the central conceit - in-universe cameras - to show most of the action from far away. Surprisingly, though, that doesn’t keep the focus off the bloodied and battered main characters. I found that the found footage style was refreshing instead of distracting.

    I enjoyed this movie very much, and can say that the litmus test for whether you might like it is simple: did you like the trailer? The trailer was pretty awesome, and the movie’s exactly what it says on the tin. The wish-fulfillment element is fantastic: I mentioned joy before, and the first half an hour or so of the movie really is a joyful view of people having fun. A scene of the characters flying and screaming "We can fly!" into the camera was particularly wonderful. After that, though, things get very, very dark, and the way the earlier scenes prime you for it emotionally is great. Chronicle is a super hero movie for the angry teenager. The fact that it works for the rest of us is pretty cool too.

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