Idle Thoughts: Chronicle

Posted: February 16, 2012 in idle thoughts
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While not exactly an action movie, I wanted to talk a little bit about Chronicle because it presents an interesting case-study that I believe a lot of action films could learn from. Directed by Josh Trank and written by Max Landis, both newcomers to the feature film industry, on the surface it’s about a group of three teenagers that are suddenly given superpowers after an encounter with a strange object in a cave. I’d like to talk a little in-depth about the film, so be warned that there may be some spoilers, explicit or implicit.

So even though I’d call it more of a science-fiction film than an action movie, the final action sequence is one of the most engaging, emotional, and entertaining I’ve seen in a while. But it achieves this by being strong where “real” action movies fail: character development. So many modern action films, be they dramatic or comedic, realistic or fantasy, completely drop the ball on character investment, relying on the effects and spectacle to sell the ticket value. This leads to the common criticisms of action films having flat characters, boring stories, formulaic scripts, and so forth. Thankfully, Trank and Landis avoid this by creating a strong story first, and upping the stakes with the action at the end. The common wisdom is that an actioner needs to grab the attention of the audience with some kind of explosive fight scene or energetic chase sequence or some kind of flashy shiny “thing” within the first five minutes of screentime, otherwise you’ll lose viewers and no one will stick around. Chronicle doesn’t do that. Chronicle doesn’t need to do that. This is because Chronicle isn’t being sold as an action movie, and it shouldn’t be. It grabs the audience’s attention with the strength of the acting and the character, by introducing drama and context without a single punch, kick, or gunshot. And with this, we start to invest our emotions in Andrew, the lead character and primary “chronicler” of the events of the film. We start to care about him and his shitty life, about his family situation, about all of his wants and dreams. And this makes everything that happens over the course of the film hit so much harder, because we already know this kid, we like him, we want him to win. And when the big action set-piece finally does arrive, everything is that much more powerful, that much more epic, all because we actually really care what happens to him. Most action movies don’t, or can’t, or won’t, do this. Either the writing is hacky or the actors are terrible or some other thing isn’t paced right or whatever, it doesn’t really invest the audience too much in what’s happening. Without that investment, there isn’t really any drama, there aren’t really any stakes in play, we already know who’s going to win and no one really cares. Granted, a few films play on this for a twist at the end, but those films are few and far between, and generally still don’t solve the problem of actually getting the audience to care about what’s happening.

And I mean it when I say that “we already know this kid.” MovieBob expresses (a bit facetiously) in his review of the film that using the found footage style of handheld cameras might be the only way to convince today’s audiences of the fictional realism. And he might be more right than he realizes. Not about the actual mechanic of filming with these cameras necessarily, but it certainly does reflect the world we live in, further reinforcing the stakes and dramatic impact of the action onscreen. Trank manages extremely well using just one or two cameras for the first half of the film, but when things start to build momentum and impact the world outside of the usual teenage social circles, he effectively makes clever and convincing use of the cameras all around us. From security footage to police cameras to every cellphone camera people carry along, there is a clear statement about society’s current obsession with chronicling every moment in our lives. It only makes sense that when something this extraordinary happens that people would want to record it for all to see. This is further reflected in Andrew’s fascination with film as well, which could serve as an example of young people anywhere. The desire to be seen, to be recognized and applauded, this is real and can be seen with every blog and vlog and livestream and commentary and review series across the internet. It’s more than just the act of viewing the film through these devices that makes the movie feel genuine; it’s the societal zeitgeist that exists behind it. And this cultural relevance is where the real power of the film lies. Beyond just caring about a kid with a sad story, we care because we know him already, we know his world. Either it was a friend of ours growing up, or maybe it actually was us, we could easily transplant the emotions and themes of the movie into our world and vice versa.

This is what films are supposed to do. At least, I feel like this is what good films are supposed to do. Maybe some people would prefer pure escapist fantasy, but I believe that a movie (or any piece of art, really) should reflect the world we live in somehow and make us care about what happens. This is just good storytelling. And it’s not even that difficult to do. As Chronicle shows us, all it really takes are strong characters, a compelling story, and themes that resonate with today’s world. We’re all human beings, with the same basic wants and needs as each other, so why do so few movies with action centerpieces strike out so badly? I don’t really have a solid answer, of course, but hopefully other films can take a lesson from Trank and Landis after this.

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