Let's not get it twisted, Josh Trank's "Chronicle," is neither superhero film, tentpole nor masterpiece. However, it is a model that will soon be adapted by studio tentpole minded projects across the board, even if it's not completely successful at the box-office (read our review here). For those that haven't seen the film yet, don't worry, no major spoilers ahead. We'll discuss the film in broad terms, but much of this is evident from the trailers.
A found footage film, "Chronicle," is about a group of teenagers who inexplicably gain telekinetic powers from a source we won't disclose, but all you need to know is that it's a MacGuffin-like plot device, which almost has no bearing on the story (read: it really could been anything, it doesn't matter).
While "Chronicle," like all films, has its flaws, and carries what is arguably a completely unneccessary found-footage conceit (the parameters of which are often broken for the sake of convenience) and doesn't always have the greatest of executions -- there's a few emotional beats missing along the way with the main character's devolution into "monster" -- what it does possess above most genre and superhero fare are ambitions on its mind far beyond the good vs. evil paradigm. Hell, its aims even go beyond the general boundaries of the modern superhero film, which essentially these days is a moody, brooding self-examining would-be hero who is unconvinced he is worthy of such powers and then is put to the test. And because of that, "Chronicle" is infinitely more interesting than its fellow films in the genre, even if it doesn't always hit its marks.
What "Chronicle" does best is side-step the notion of one-dimensional villains and heroes and asks the simple question: what might happen if teenagers were bestowed with super human powers and how would they behave and respond?
The answer is refreshingly modern (and simple). They would fuck around, abuse their power for their own gain (both in trivial and consequential ways) and essentially take their newfound abilities out for joyrides as often as possible (and yes, they try and impress chicks too, duh). Grounded in that relatable reality, "Chronicle" seems to dwarf the simple concerns of pictures like "Thor," "Green Lantern" and "Captain America" (and possibly "The Avengers," which appears as if it will follow the same boring premise -- heroes trying to save the world from destruction).
In a sense, "Chronicle" is an above average genre film or a very typical drama that happens to have super natural elements. The main conflict isn't quite apparent at first because there is (thankfully) no traditional villain. Instead, as witnessed in the trailers, its about these three teenagers self-policing themselves and one of the more socially-pained and tormented of the trio succumbing to hubris and manifesting his powers through emo tantrums and frustrated rage. And yes, we'll concede, this is arguably where the film misses its mark a few times, even though it attempts to set up this character's emotional issues early on. The transition to pure, uncontrollable anger seems slightly off, but that's a minor issue, a smaller part of our larger point.
The bottom line is "Chronicle" gets more elements right then it does wrong. For one -- and you can bet your ass studios will be paying attention to this just as they did with the relatively inexpensive "District 9" -- Trank's film has thrilling action and aerial sequences and the film didn't cost $150 million. In fact it cost around $12 million, so if it is a hit, it could be very lucrative. Even if it's not a commercial smash, there's a reason Trank is rumored to be the first choice to reboot the "Fantastic Four" franchise: he's produced a picture that's been made for less than half the cost of those cornball films, and it's 10 times as interesting and inventive as either of them. And he's done it with his debut film, proving he can make a quality, engaging and entertaining genre film for a song -- and Hollywood loves that.
Of course they could always make the mistake of throwing millions of unnecessary dollars at him and frontloading his next picture with stars (which one could argue is happening with "Elysium"), but that would be the studios' continuing miscalculation of overspending to try and make a massive profit (see films like "The Lone Ranger" that are major risks as they are either huge hits or huge bombs with no middle ground).
Like "Cloverfield," "District 9" or even "Monsters" demonstrated, a new, more thought-provoking and cost-effective playing field is merging in sci-fi/creature-based, super-powered genre films. Forced to be creative because the budget isn't exorbitant (like Spielberg was way back in the day with "Jaws") and by focusing on things like story and character rather than spectacle, "Chronicle" and films of its ilk tend to look less like scrappy newcomers, and more like seasoned veterans, that still contain an original voice that is loud and clear. With less at stake financially, and with that lowered risk a greater opportunity to play creative rather than worrying about four quadrant marketing, films like "Chronicle" will hopefully lead to a bridging of that gap in the studio system, where virtually every movie is subjected to do-or-die expectations.
But there is one caveat in all this: it's up to audiences to make that happen. Studios only respond where they see dollar signs, and if "Chronicle" fails to impress this weekend, this conversation is pretty much moot. So far, this scrappy, microbudget approach has largely been in the proven domain of horror films (though next month's comedy "Project X" will be another test of a lo-fi production with no stars). That said, if "Chronicle" can develop strong word of mouth and show legs over the next few weeks, you can be sure executives will be paying very close attention, and hopefully begin taking more chances on films that don't require a built-in brand and $100 million dollars to get made.