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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012 08:01 am

Chronicle: The Superhero Film as Cautionary Tale

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DC and Marvel Comics have never had a problem putting their stable of characters in “imaginary” stories in which the particulars of their origins are tweaked a tiny bit. While this is often done to boost lagging sales, some these stories proved intriguing in the way they would present well-known heroes in a different light. Instead of landing in the heartland of America, one such tale had Superman landing in Russia as an infant. So much for the Cold War. In another, Peter Parker, after having been bitten by the pesky radioactive spider, actually grew extra four extra legs, thus prompting the need for not only a new wardrobe as well as dealing another blow to the teen’s already low self-esteem.

John Trank’s Chronicle plays out like one of those alternate tales. It takes tropes that are part and parcel of the superhero genre and puts a slightly different spin on them, producing a loopy, cautionary tale. Shot, a la Blair Witch with a variety of handheld as well as security camera, the film strains to attain a documentary-like feel in order to ground this fantastic tale. It succeeds during its first hour but the script by Max Landis violates many of its own rules, leading to a bit of an aesthetic mess that muddies the film’s narrative waters.

Three Seattle teens, philosophy-spouting hunk Matt (Alex Russell), Mr. Popularity Steve (Michael Kelly) and outsider Andrew (Dane DeHaan), stumble upon a crystal, meteorite whatsits from out space that gives them super powers. Initially, all they can do is move small objects but they master and build on this gift and before you know it, their flying thousands of feet in the air and moving large vehicles on a whim, while it’s implied this is just the tip of the iceberg where their capabilities are concerned.

The focal point of the film – and the element that provides the story’s tweak – is Andrew. Coming from an abusive home, watching his mother die a slow and painful death and often the target of bullies, he becomes a ticking time bomb of rage, destined to misuse his powers in an understandable but tragic manner. The film walks a tightrope where the character is concerned and it’s to DeHaan and Landis’ credit that he remains likable even when his actions are not. Andrew is about as far away from the well-adjusted Peter Parker as you can imagine and as a result his gift becomes is far from a blessing in the hands of an angry, misunderstood teenager.

The best thing about the film, in addition to the performances of the three principals, is its special effects. Modest in comparison to big budget films, they perfectly meld together the film’s realistic setting with that of the fantastic. Whenever a character flies or manipulates objects, there is a “you-are-there” quality that holds the film in good stead as it perfectly captures the wonder of what these three are doing. To be sure, the logic behind the always-present camera jumps the tracks in the film’s third act and calls attention to the lack of logic behind it far too often. However, the sense of wonder generated by Trank and the poignancy generated by its trio of young actors makes “Chronicle” a worthy and weighty addition to the superhero genre.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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