Monday, February 6, 2012
It has been 13 years since The Blair Witch Project debuted at Sundance to great fanfare and the "found footage" genre was born. Since then, there have been a number of films utilizing the same format, with notable examples being Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity series. This genre is not one of my favorites as it generally lends itself to ridiculous explanations for the camera being there and amateurish writing as the writers try to come up with realistic dialogue (a Tarantino found footage film would probably be great), but there are appropriate uses for the format. However, I cannot think of a film that has used this device worse than Chronicle.
Chronicle follows a lonely teenager named Andrew (Dane DeHaan), who has an abusive father and a dying mother. The only friend he has is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell). Andrew decides to start recording everything with a video camera he bought. He takes the camera everywhere he goes, including a party that leads to the discovery of a strange hole in the ground. Andrew, Matt, and popular class president candidate Steve (Michael B. Jordan) explore that hole and come into contact with a strange object, which eventually gives them superpowers.
There is some really good material in here. The main cast all do really strong work and the overall story arc has a pretty compelling appeal to it. The film takes some refreshing twists to the superhero genre. There is no villain and in fact they don't fight crime at all. The story is more about how the powers affect the social status and friendships among the main characters. Andrew's character development is particularly powerful, as he struggles with reining his powers in amidst personal trauma.
This makes it all the more distressing that they trotted out the tired found footage format. This is a story that did not fit that genre at all. The format worked for The Blair Witch Project, because the filmmakers used the limitations to their advantage, correctly realizing that what you can't see is often scarier than what you can see. However, in Chronicle it feels like the filmmakers are laboring to find an excuse for there to be a camera in nearly every single scene. It's a very distracting conceit, even when they finally come up with the idea of having Andrew able to levitate it.
The filmmakers come up with a few ideas to get around this problem. They introduce a romantic interest for Matt, who also just happens to love carrying a camera everywhere she goes. They never really develop her, making it clear that her only purpose was so there could be footage of Matt when Andrew wasn't around. But this should've been a clue that this format would not work for the film. If you have to include footage from multiple cameras (they also use security camera footage) to tell the story, then why not just ditch the found footage idea and tell the story naturally?
Part of the problem, as is usually the case with a gimmick idea in a film, is a lack of confidence in the story. Maybe director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis didn't realize they already had strong material and didn't need to throw in any tricks to make it seem better. If so, they were dead wrong and made a disastrous choice. Not only was the basic story strong with good performances, powerful character development, and exciting action sequences (especially the ending), but all of this would've been so much better without a device that forced the filmmakers to cut corners and strain credibility.
Posted by Larry McGillicuddy at 12:17 PM