“Ever hear of Plato’s allegory of the cave?” one teenager asks another in Chronicle. This philosophy quiz was unexpected in the midst of a thrill ride movie, but Chronicle is so surprisingly interesting I wondered if its makers ever saw The Conformist (1970), where Bernardo Bertolucci visualized Plato’s allegory. When it’s good, Chronicle is less a thrill ride than a deliberation on movie thrills and contemporary youth market tastes.
In Chronicle, debut director Josh Trank uses all of the high school adolescent clichés polished into queer angst, Obama stargazing and hunk sensitivity.
It’s commercial formula with a brash spin; Andrew’s (Dane DeHaan) snooping camera represents a poor kid’s attempt at both the self-consciousness of the social media age and Hollywood’s latest cheap trend: using subjective realism as a premise for the horror and supernatural genres. This goes back to The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, trite exploitations of the hand-held, real-time camera gimmick, but Trank distances himself from both with state-of-the-art panache.
Videography by Matthew Jensen makes spectacle the movie’s real subject. Chronicle’s sharp, ultra-clear, subtle imagery is more compelling than what happens to Andrew, Steve (Michael B. Jordan) and cousin Matt’s (Alex Russell) friendship after they develop telekinetic superpowers upon encountering a meteorite.
Chronicle alludes to the metaphoric hormonal urges of DePalma’s classics Carrie and The Fury—in fact, it’s loaded with pop references. Screenwriter Max Landis throws in plot concepts and gimmicks without ever achieving the concentration on moral quandary and mythology that distinguished last year’s TrollHunter, the Scandinavian upgrade of the witness-to-horror stunt premise.
Landis and Trank only play around with that potential. But when the three friends discover an ability to fly and play football in the sky, the metaphor for prowess and transcendence blends digital video effects and genuine cinematic spectacle into the damnedest thing since the skydiving scenes in Point Break.
Beyond its gimmicky premise, Chronicle’s visual excitement raises the important issue of how we use and respond to media. When the camera appears to follow Andrew’s P.O.V. or capture his different adventures and humiliations—from spelunking to flying to sex—Trank seems to be exercising cinematic form.
The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity movies have degraded cinematic form, but when the hand-held, real-time stunt isn’t trite, the matter of aesthetic purpose and artistic responsibility must be pondered, as here.
Masterpieces like Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Bertolucci’s The Conformist, DePalma’s The Fury and Spielberg’s War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin make aesthetic issues part of their stories—the Blair Witch hoaxes don’t. Trank’s fumbling allegory questions responsibility: The boys realize that their ability to move things and do damage carries an onus (their noses bleed) and cousin Matt comes up with rules that Andrew defies when enraged. Lacking consistent follow-through, Chronicle deteriorates into a destruction-of-Seattle finale, eventually trashing Trank’s subtle references to Nirvana’s cheerleaders-in-hell music video “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
That Plato question is smart-assed. Chronicle superficially touches on philosophy as it superficially questions violence while exploiting Hollywood’s violent trends. Chronicle’s frustrating misuse of dazzling cinematic technique raises the question of the era: Do youth audiences know what cinematic form is for?
Follow Armond White on Twitter @3xchair.
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