The Real Alternative to Yellow Spandex

I want to talk about Chronicle, because I finally got around to watching it, and I really enjoyed it, and contrary to my last couple of reviews I do actually like talking about things I enjoy. But first, I want to talk about whether I should be talking about Chronicle, here.

For those who don't know, Chronicle is about three teenagers who find a thing in a cave that grants them telekinetic powers. My first instinct was to classify it as action sci-fi. And I'm not alone in that; the Lovely Madam Meagan did the same after we watched it, and the first seven words in its Wikipedia entry are "Chronicle is a 2012 science fiction film'. But then I stopped and tried to think about why Chronicle is a science fiction film, and I realized I couldn't come up with a single thing. The thing the boys encounter isn't obviously technological. Their abilities are as likely the result of some bizarre natural radiation producing a mutation. Or, heck, magic. The thing is never studied, at least not by the boys, and their abilities are never explained as being some previously-untapped ability all humans possess. There are no aliens, no lasers or force-fields, no super soldiers, no robots or battle armour. Nothing in this film is particularly science fiction-y. Frankly, it's more fantasy than anything else, albeit a rather dark sort. But because it doesn't involve wizards or vampires or werewolves, nobody seems to think of it that way.

Science fiction, it seems, now constitutes anything fantastical that isn't explicitly magical or supernatural. Which is weird, because it means the genre picks up things like Chronicle and Hancock, good films that don't actually have anything to do with where they wind up. Are superhero movies just science fiction by default, now?

Still, if we're going to wind up with movies arbitrarily crammed into the science fiction genre, it's nice when they're as good as Chronicle. The movie follows three high school boys, Andrew, Matt and Steve. Andrew is the son of an abusive father and a dying mother, and his purchase of a hilariously oversized portable camera starts the film. Dragged out to a party by his cousin Matt, Andrew is spotted by Steve, the school's resident cool kid who, surprisingly, is just a really nice guy. Rather than bullying or insulting Andrew, Steve actually wants a favour; can Andrew come record this amazing thing he and Matt have found with his omnipresent camera? The thing, frankly, defies description, and not just because whatever energy it's putting out is interfering with the camera. It looks star-shaped, some form of glowing crystal half-obscured by rock, and demonstrates some rather impressively strange properties. From their exposure to it the boys discover they've gained telekinesis, a power that's roughly equal for all of them but finds expression in ways particular to each of the three's temperaments. And unfortunately, but not unsurprisingly, the temperament of a bullied outcast with an alcoholic and abusive father and a slowly and painfully dying mother is perhaps not the best one to entrust with powerful telekinetic abilities.

Chronicle is, first and foremost, a character piece. For all its mysterious power sources and superhero-style antics, the movie is really about Andrew and Matt. Steve is a decidedly minor character, though he gets some good moments, and the movie certainly wouldn't play out the same without him. The movie's driving conflict, in the absence of supervillains or monsters, is the struggle between Andrew and Matt, between an abused and bullied kid who suddenly finds himself with more power than anyone else, and a smug and pretentious but ultimately level-headed kid who understands that they need rules and boundaries. Matt is afraid of them doing something terrible, by accident or on purpose; Andrew is tired of having the terrible things in life happen only to him. Competing outlooks based on radically different upbringings set the cousins on a collision course that is as obvious and inevitable as it is believable and tragic.

The acting is solid, probably made easier by the fact that there are only really a handful of characters in the film. The handheld style of the movie helps with viewer perception of the actors' presentations, as well; the semi-intimate feel of the well-executed affectation draws the viewer in. It's a nice touch, and it more than the lack of costumes and wise old uncles really sets this film apart from the superhero genre. Not enough to escape being reflexively labelled science fiction, of course, but still. There are some weak elements, particularly a romance subplot for Matt that just sort of peters out, but on the whole the focus is kept tight, on the increasing friction between responsible Matt and predatory Andrew.

Whether you like superhero movies or not, Chronicle is definitely worth a look. And it's done well enough that it's got a sequel in the works, something I'm looking forward to. Perhaps this time I'll even manage to make it to the theatres before it closes up its run!

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