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'Chronicle': the movie that made special effects special again

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CHRONICLE
Alan Markfield

In Chronicle, the low-budget sci-fi sleeper hit about three high school dudes who suddenly find themselves blessed (or is it cursed?) with telekinetic powers, Andrew (Dane DeHaan), the most troubled and supernaturally gifted of the three, waves his hand, and a line of police cars shoot backwards as if hit by a tsunami. A baseball hovers in the air, human bodies fly up into the clouds, and a shopping cart rolls through a convenience store as if it had a mind of its own. Pringles potato chips and playing cards go flying. If any, or all, of these events strike you as the sort of routine cinematic wonders that you could easily behold in just about any fantasy film, from X-Men VIII: Superfreaks and Geeks to one made 30 or 40 years ago…well, you’d be right. Yet every time something out of the ordinary happens in Chronicle, it feels freshly minted and kind of awesome. For once (or, at least, for the first time in a long while), a movie’s special effects truly are…special.

At one point, Andrew, full of rage, sits next to a car and slowly, angrily crumples his fist, and the car crumples right along with it. Not being a tech nerd, I have no idea how most special effects are brought off, but when I watched that scene, I really thought to myself: “Damn! How the f—- did they do that?” How did they rig that car to collapse from within and time it so perfectly? It’s not that the effect, or any of the other effects in Chronicle, was so technologically startling. If anything, they have an earthbound, handmade quality. As it turns out, that’s the key to their magic.

I’ve always thought that the Harry Potter films, for all their famous faithfulness to the books, are in one big way vastly different in tone from what J.K. Rowling created on the page. The wonder of the books, with their slightly fussy Dickensian coziness, is that every little act of magic seems wonderfully incongruous — they all seem to be taking place in a homespun clock-shop world. Whereas the movies, with their heavily digitized landscapes, their technological sheen, create an all-magic-all-the-time feeling in which magic is so much the rule rather than the exception that, after a while, we cease to be amazed by it. In a funny way, Chronicle, with its telekinetic trio of high school buddy wizards who must learn to master their powers, comes closer to the rattletrap, flying-gizmo spirit of the Potter books than most of the movies do.

If the effects in Chronicle look and feel analog, that’s because most of them are. That may sound like a conscious nostalgic primitivism — hey, let’s go back to the way that effects used to be! — until you consider the basic yet oft-forgotten fact that concrete, analog effects, like the spaceships in Star Wars, are objects that exist in the physical world. And so on some tactile-metaphysical level, they’re actually a lot closer to reality — that is, to the fantasies they’re depicting — than digital effects are. What makes Chronicle such a cool and original movie is that the director, Josh Trank, doesn’t just give you the sense that he’s reinventing special effects from the ground up. He uses that prankish let’s try it on! spirit to mirror the way that his characters, especially Andrew, discover their own powers. This is a sci-fi movie about guys who, in effect, suddenly find themselves in the middle of their own sci-fi movie.

That’s where the found-footage genre comes in. It’s not that Chronicle, with its loosely shot video-diary look, is about actual “found” footage, the way The Blair Witch Project or the Paranormal Activity films or ABC’s The River is. It’s that the conventions of the form (the home-movie raggedness, the rhythms that ramble, the mugging-into-the-camera acting) allow Trank to stage scenes that aren’t powered by a dramatic arc, scenes that consist almost entirely of the characters just hanging out, making up what they’re doing as they go along. When Andrew, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell, who’s like a junior Matthew McConaughey), and the polished and popular glad-hander Steve (Michael B. Jordan) first figure out that they can fly, we see them up in the clouds, tossing a football around, and the comedy of the scene is that it isn’t quite a “scene.” It’s just guys up in the air goofing around, doing whatever comes into their heads. The special effects are casually brilliant: those doughy wisps of cloud, the shots of the ground far, far below that look every bit as authentic as the Dubai skyscraper-eye views of the ground in Mission: Impossible–Ghost Protocol. Yet a lot of what enhances the sensation that those dudes are really up there, floating, is the way the scene itself just sort of floats (until it’s almost literally sliced by an airliner).

It’s not until late in the game that Chronicle reveals it has tricked us into watching a superhero origin story without our quite knowing it. You can’t have a superhero movie without super effects, and the big, bruising climax of Chronicle provides them. As Andrew, in his rage against the world (he’s the superhero as sociopath, which à la The Dark Knight may be truer to one aspect of what superheroes really are than all that clean, upstanding, global-savior nobility), goes on a rampage in downtown Seattle, the effects, at least on paper, sound like a standard array of blockbuster tropes: a bus hurled through the air, all those trashed cop cars, the Space Needle turned into a colossal landmark-as-prop. But once again, it’s the way that the effects are executed, the loving and remarkable tangibility of each shot, each object, that gives us a rush of bedazzlement. Chronicle understands that the real key to special effects isn’t showing you things that your eyes have never seen before. (In movies, that happens just about every week.) It’s in getting you to believe your eyes.

So what did you think of the special effects in Chronicle? Did they wow you? And do you agree with me that effects in movies no longer seem very special, in part because we see so many of them, week after week?

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman