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Everybody hates Andrew: “Chronicle”

March 15, 2012

Okay this whole “found footage” genre is really starting to piss me off. I’m not saying it’s played itself out or jumped the shaky-cam shark or anything, but it seems clear to me that it has become a crutch for lazy filmmaking and storytelling. I mean, Blair Witch worked precisely because it was deliberately formless and storyless, but then we get crap like Cloverfield, The Devil Within, Apollo 18, and now Chronicle. These are movies that could have been done in a normal narrative style, but instead they did them on the cheap, cast some no-names and then dumped them into theaters. Thanks Hollywood.

So, what’s Chronicle about, you ask? Well, it’s kind of like X-Men: First Class, if the teenaged mutants Magneto and Professor Xavier drummed up acted like real teenagers and not, well, comic book heroes. That is to say, less saving the world, more getting drunk and looking up girls’ skirts. About the same amount of flying, though.

Our protagonist is a Seattle teenager named Andrew (Dane DeHaan), who has a home life that makes Carrie White look like she was one of the fucking Huxtables (kids, ask your parents). His mom is dying of cancer, and his father is a alcoholic former firefighter who likes to get drunk and smack Andrew around. They live in a grim, clapboard house filled with cruddy furniture and reeking of desperation. All the kids at school make fun of him, because, well…why not? Really, it’s a minor miracle Andrew hasn’t gone on a shooting spree yet.

Okay, so one night he’s dragged to a party by his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) in an effort to make him more, uh, well, normal (and maybe stave off the eventual school massacre). There they meet up with the popular quarterback, Steve (Michael B. Jordon), who remembers Andrew and decides to hang with them.  “I have a thing for memorizing faces,” he explains, “that’s why I’m going into politics.” Wait…because you can remember faces? Dude, what the hell do you think politicians do, precisely?

Oh, and all is being filmed with a handheld video camera, because… I dunno, that’s what teenagers to these days when they’re not on the tweeter or sending naked pictures of themselves to their teachers, and all that other bad stuff CNN tells me they do.

Later, on their way home they find a big, glowy meteorite, which promptly zaps them. Next thing you know, they have whanging cases of telekinesis. Cool, right? And what would you do if you had telekinetic abilities and were 16 years-old? Right, you’d totally dick with people. And they do—we see this in the trailer. If the movie had just gone in this direction we could have had a reasonably-good found-footage version of Zapped! Alas, no.

Instead, the toxic combination of Andrew’s abusive home-life and his newfound powers find him losing control of himself. It starts simply enough: he destroys a tail-gating truck by accident, and overpowers his old man they next time he tries to whale on him. Natural, right? But then, after a humiliating incident at a party (he barfs on a chick), he freaks and accidentally kills Steve as they confront one another high up inside a lightning storm.

Oh yeah, they can fly now. That happened.

Well, I think you can see where this is going. Andrew struggles to control his power and decouple them from his rage, but soon he becomes obsessed with the idea that he is what zoologists refer to as an “apex predator,”—the guy hanging out on top of the food chain. Apparently, this means he plans to eat his peers. That or he doesn’t fully get the whole “predator” part of that concept.

When his mother takes a turn for the worse, he ends up robbing a convenience store, getting badly burned and comatose in the process. His mom dies, and his dad visits his hospital room and begins verbally abusing his comatose son, in a scene that manages to be horrific for a just a moment before it slides into self-parody. I mean, the dad is so over-the-top evil at this point, you expect him to start snapping random kitten’s necks or shouting, “I think that Kony feller is okay!” Stalin looks like Leo Buscaglia next to this guy.

Well, that brings Andrew out of his coma, and, well, I think you can see where this is going next. Andrew goes all Dark Phoenix on downtown Seattle, flying around like the demon-spawn of Eric Klebold and Tinkerbell, busting shit up and throwing cops around, all while screaming, “I’m the apex predator! I’m the apex predator!” I’d go for a less geeky battle cry myself, but that’s just me. Finally, Matt confronts him, and they have a quick mental battle royale, before Matt kills him. And really, by this point you’re happy to see Andrew go.

Okay, looping back to what I said earlier, the big problem with this movie is that it abuses the found-footage concept worse than Andrew’s ludicrously-evil father abused him. First off, we get video footage from everywhere. We get Andrew’s camera, Andrew’s new camera, assorted security cameras, random cell-phone footage…Okay, where exactly was this footage “found?” And , no, you can’t just answer “planet Earth,” you have to narrow it down. In Blair Witch the footage came from two cameras the protagonists had that, we are told in the beginning of the film, was edited into coherence. We get no such setup in Chronicle. It’s just a lot of camera footage. Um, who “found” this footage, anyway?

The second way it abuses the format is summed up in the scene where the kids realize they have this new found power. Oh, wait, there isn’t one!!! Why not, you ask? Because that would have requires exposition and scripting, and staging, and a lot of crap the filmmakers didn’t want to do. No, they wanted to just cut to the chase and make it a quick 80 minute movie that consists mostly of good parts. And while there’s something to be said for brevity, you can’t just shortchange your concept, because you’re afraid it’s going to make the movie too long. If it makes the movie too long, then it’s the wrong concept.

Look, I know Elmore Leonard famously said that he “skipped the parts people don’t read,” but that doesn’t make his books 20 pages of shootouts and fistfights. The key is to make the parts between action sequences interesting. You do that by developing characters, fleshing out the world they live in, creating mood. All the stuff that actually makes this a story and not just a bunch of events strung together. This movie does none of that.

As a result, the characters are all poorly-developed. Matt is a generic everyman (no, giving him the habit of quoting philosophy does not mean he has character traits). Steve plays the stereotypical non-threatening black character to such a T, this performance wouldn’t be out of place in a meta-comedy. And Andrew, while appropriately menacing, never quite makes sense. The films hints at more depth to his character than we see onscreen, but what we do see just never gels into anything more than nasty, mean-spirited little runt. He’s like one of those school-shooters, that when you read about them you think, “Yeah, I can see why he got bullied.” Carrie White may have been similarly abused, but she was always sympathetic—even when she killed that teacher who was nice to her.

So basically what we got is a movie that uses the found footage technique to gloss over its own laziness.  This is a little alarming. Hollywood has damn few filmmakers who can actually tell a story to begin with. Now, we’re giving all those other lazy, lousy filmmakers a format that allows them not to.

Plus, for high school students, they didn’t telepathically undress many chicks at all. If this movie was about me, there’d be a lot more clothes whipping off. Just saying. A lot more. Zapped! was way better…

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