Last week I was invited, along with several other journalists, to the Fox lot in Century City to check out some footage for the upcoming supernatural thriller Chronicle. Written by Max Landis (son of John) and directed by Josh Trank, Chronicle takes the standard “teen acquires superpowers” conceit and explores the smaller, more mundane daily elements of it. That is, until things get really big. Which I can assure you they do.
The film is centered around three unlikely teenage friends who happen upon a cave-like space that grants them telekinetic powers. The two more well adjusted guys (played by Michael B. Jordan and Alex Russell) focus on honing their powers at least somewhat responsibly while the more introverted Andrew (Dane DeHaan) begins to go off the rails a bit.
While I can’t judge an entire film only by the 15-20 minutes of footage they showed, what I did see certainly had some intriguing elements. There’s some stuff that could be genuinely exciting if they pull it off correctly. I have a few concerns as well (the characters being chief among them) but again, I’ll just have to wait and see the whole thing.
Hit the jump to check more details on the footage along with excerpts from a Q&A with director Josh Trank and creative exec Steve Asbell.
“This film came in as a truly original idea. [It has] an original voice in Josh and in Max Landis, who wrote the script. It’s rare when something like this comes in. It feels special. It feels like there’s a voice and it has soul to it. When I read the script it was literally one of the best screenplays I’ve ever read. It had so much truth to it… This has been the most profoundly satisfying experience of my career. ” – Steve Asbell – Fox Creative Exec
Believe it or not, I went into the presentation absolutely cold. I hadn’t seen the trailer, I didn’t know the synopsis – I didn’t even know the genre of the film. For whatever reason it just hadn’t hit my radar, and once I found out I’d be covering the event I decided to keep myself blind until then. It’s very rare that I have the opportunity to be surprised and I’m becoming more and more interested in finding ways to preserve that experience for myself.
First the trailer played. And honestly? I was immediately annoyed. For about 30 seconds it seemed to be just like every other found footage film I’ve sat through the past few years. But then I noticed that the aesthetic was more clean and composed and the story at least looked like it focussed on a strong narrative hook rather than a series of events being fished for by the protagonists or “accidentally” caught on tape.
It strangely looks exactly like what it is – “found footage” meets “big studio movie”.
And it’s very much by design.
The clips we were shown feel like they were culled from a film designed to distill an X-Men vibe through the plain-clothes aesthetic of Unbreakable and into a Cloverfield shaped vessel.
The first few segments introduce us to our core group of teens at a rave-like party. Later on, Andrew is outside crying (his camera still on for some reason – recording the sounds of your own meltdown seems like an odd choice) when he’s approached by Michael B. Jordan’s character who informs him that he wants his help filming a hole in the woods. After some cajoling, they join Alex Russell’s character at the mouth of the cave and enter. We don’t see what they see – we only know that it’s ostensibly pretty neat. The clip ends and Trank advises us that we will definitely get a closer look at the cave when the film hits theaters next month.
From there on we basically see many of the full scenes from which the trailer is assembled. There’s the kids testing out their powers in a toy store, terrorizing a girl with a stuffed bear (admittedly, I laughed). The kids telekinetically “stealing” a lady’s car at the mall. A cool scene where they’re teaching themselves to fly. And a really nice image of Andrew disassembling a spider in thin air, hinting at his darkness.
Then things turn real dark when Andrew sends an SUV careening off-road and into a lake during a rainstorm – a move which lands the driver in the hospital. There’s also a scene where Andrew films himself robbing a convenience store. To me it’s a hiccup, another moment that had me asking “why?” I know he can control the camera telekinetically and have it orb all around him while he’s doing stuff, but having an ability is not the same thing as having a motivation. I begin to wonder if the film’s ambitions in the human drama department will fumble and trip up the mechanics of the spectacle it wants to create and vice versa.
The footage presentation concludes with some images from the 3rd act that are actually kind of cool. A car levitating up to Seattle’s space needle only to find Aaron hovering above it, seemingly massive destruction befalling the metropolis below. A lot of it works surprisingly well.
My general thoughts on the footage are that, sure, there’s some really cool stuff. Trank is obviously a talented guy – and this is indeed impressive for a first time feature director. But I’m not sold on Max Landis’ script or Trank’s understanding of what constitutes an honest character moment.
There seems to be a trend in Hollywood that to write a teenager means basically to write the personality type of a young junior agent or development exec (ie kind of douchey and full of the posturing confidence and casual sexism whose reinforcement or diminishment depends wholly on upcoming success or failure), strip a few years off their age and send them back to high school. I’m not sure why this happens. But in my experience, while teenagers are certainly capable of behaving that way, it’s not the entire experience of being young in 2011. For instance, a movie like The Descendants excels at drawing out the rebelliousness of teenage years on the canvas of real characters.
Why am I bringing this up? Because this film (and its makers) are using the angle of it being a “real human drama” as a selling point. It may work in the final film – I’m not saying it won’t. I just have my concerns.
How do the teens as portrayed in this footage stack up? The performances seem fine. Michel B. Jordan and Alex Russell’s characters seem to have a strong moral compass as things progress but they come out of the gate in a broad strokes “guy’s guy” way that doesn’t seem wholly identifiable. Andrew seems more fleshed out, but teetering on being a quotes only “fleshed out” character actually verging on one-note. I’m sure we’ll get to know them better in the film, but I’m not sure that will improve anything.
How can I write a review based on that amount of footage? I can’t. That’s not what I’m doing. We were shown particular scenes and this is only my reaction to those scenes.
So in short – cool action, images and concepts. But not sold on their portrayal of the human element. Perhaps when I see the film all of my concerns will vanish.
But enough of my yapping. Here are some excerpts from the Q&A.
Josh Trank on why he wanted to make the film. “This movie, it’s really surreal that I was able to make it. And every time I felt like the opportunity was real I felt like I was going to fight for my life to make this happen because this is my real fantasy movie. It’s a movie I would really want to see in theaters. It all [started because] whenever I was a kid my daydreams would always turn into telekinetic fantasies”.
Is it a pure found-footage film? “Everything plays out as raw untampered footage. All of the music, all of the sounds, everything is source.”
“I always wanted to shoot it found-footage but I wanted it to be cinematic. So I knew that if you had a character who was visually gifted and was able to operate his camera telekinetically, that there’d be a unique movie there”.
Does the film accurately represent the teenage experience? “As far as the modern teenage experience, this movie plays wish fulfillment without any cynicism attached to it. If this took place in the 1920’s these kids would be having fun in the same way they are here”.
On Andrew’s descent into anger and madness, “When things go dark, they go very dark”.
Do we ever find out what happens inside the cave [where their powers are granted]? “We do. And it’s pretty cool.”
Why is it set in Seattle? “I grew up in the 90’s and I love Nirvana. No, honestly it was originally set in Portland. I grew up here in Los Angeles, and any place that has seasons I find fascinating. I’ve always been fascinated by the pacific northwest and Max happened to be fascinated by it too. So when we came to the studio and were developing it internally Steve said, “what about the space needle?” Because we were trying to find a movie that had something science fiction about it. New York is where a lot of the superhero movies are set. Other than some random movie in the 70’s where John Wayne was playing a cop I couldn’t think of any other movie set in Seattle.”
Why is it titled Chronicle? “I was trying to think about the themes. I thought about ‘Journal’ because it’s kind of a journal. Then I thought about ‘Chronicle’ because he’s chronicling stuff and it’s a cool, mysterious name. Then I knew it should absolutely be called ‘Chronicle’ .”
Why is Andrew filming all of this? “He got his camera originally to document what is going on in his home. His mom is suffering from a terminal illness and his dad has been an alcoholic for many years. It’s just getting worse and worse. He originally starts filming for that purpose and it turns into something else.”
There’s been a lot of comparison to Cloverfield and Akira. How do you feel about that? “There are so many influences on this movie. I’m not offended by any of the comparisons. There’s a lot of ‘Akira’ talk, which is one of my favorite movies of all time.”
Chronicle hits theaters on February 3rd, 2012. I’ll be right there in line to check it out with the rest of you folks.