Sunday, February 5, 2012

Chronicle and Serendipity

After swearing I’ll never see another movie in the irritatingly persistent video vérité genre, I always end up seeing another one. In regards to Chronicle, I just had to see it because I love science fiction and because of a bit of serendipity I will explain later.

In Chronicle three high school senior guys, Andrew (Dane DeHaa), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), stumble upon an alien contraption at the bottom of a cave, and the thing gives them nose bleeds and the power of telekinesis (my favorite superpower). At first they just throw things around and assemble Legos without touching them. Later, they learn to throw themselves around with dramatic results. For Matt and Steve, it’s just a cool thing, and they want to set limits for their power, but Andrew, Matt’s cousin, is a more troubled individual.

An outcast at school, Andrew has a mother dying of a lung disease and a bitter, hard-drinking father who slaps him around. In addition, he goes around videotaping everything as a kind of security blanket. This is the premise that somewhat convincingly justifies that all that we are seeing is being caught on videotape. Fortunately, the camerawork isn’t shaky. Andrew has a steady hand and uses a tripod. Later, he uses his telekinesis to make the camcorder float in air.

For the most part, the whole captured-on-found-video thing seems totally unnecessary – though I guess if my friends and I were doing awesome things with telekinesis, we’d want to capture it on video. Very quickly, after the three buddies play out their teenage wish fulfillment, pulling off pranks, impressing their peers, and punishing bullies, the film turns into a very entertaining broad-canvas superpowers flick culminating in a huge CGI battle royale amidst the skyscrapers of Seattle that doesn't need the video gimmick. When Andrew goes haywire, however, his deeds are captured on security cameras, and this device proves quite powerful in its realism. But for the most part, when Andrew’s camera is floating steadily overhead, we either forget about the video device or don’t care because the story has taken a very serious turn that gives this little sci-fi movie a powerful kick.

At the center of this serious turn is Andrew, like the Invisible Man or Dr. Jekyll, a troubled dude intoxicated by a superhuman power and tempted to misuse it. Looking a lot like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Basketball Diaries, DeHaan delivers an intense performance, another reason the movie doesn’t need to fiddle with the video device, another strength that turns a little film about teenage escapades into a rather grand affair.

Now to explain the serendipity.

Back in 2011 when the preview for Chronicle showed for the first time, some of my students in my drama club came running to me, saying "they" had stolen our movie idea. I had seen the preview, and I knew what they were talking about.

Besides producing a full-length stage play each year, our drama club makes short dramatic movies. I get to write and direct; they get another chance to act. In the fall of 2010, we made a 15-minute movie called Whatever!, about four teenage girls who find an alien cylinder from outer space that gives them special powers. One girl can turn invisible; one can time travel; one can teleport; one gets telekinesis. At first they use their powers to pull pranks or make life easier, but when their powers lead to negative side effects, three of the girls decide they should destroy the cylinder, but the one with telekinesis is intoxicated with her power and rebels against her friends. A battle ensues, though the result is less tragic than the ending of Chronicle.

(If some of my students see Chronicle, they will come running to exclaim about another specific coincidence. Both movies involve the use of telekinesis to make a deck of cards fly up into the air – though Chronicle does it with CGI and we did it by dropping the cards from a ladder while the actors act in reverse, and later reversing the shot.)

The similarities between the stories were quite striking, but I assured my students that the idea for Whatever!, as well as Chronicle, is not that original, and I cited The Craft (1996) as an example. The story of someone intoxicated by a special power is as old as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and this classic paradigm, played out engagingly by DeHaan, Russell, and Jordan, along with the large-scale action, makes Chronicle a surprise hit of the early-release doldrums.

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