Found footage reinvigorates an old tale of kids growing up, learning to fly, and wanting to become their fathers.
Horror is a genre obsessed with the evil daddy-thing. Take Jason, the wounded little boy who comes shambling out of the grave transformed into a faceless lawgiver, dispensing punishment to the good and evil alike. You had sex? Die! You were a goody-two shoes virgin? Die! Or there's Freddy, with those phallic fingers, waiting to crucify you for the transgressions of your dreams. Horror—at least effective horror—is never just about random villainy or impersonal acts of violence. It's always about the intimacy of retribution: the twisted, gaping, maw of justice into which everyone knows that they deserve to plummet. In horror, we're all the little kids waiting for the painful thrill of punishment.
The barely concealed Freudian subtext is a big part of the reason that horror is such a good fit with the found-footage genre, from The Blair Witch Project to The Devil Inside. The wavery, uncertain eye peeking at what should not be seen and can never be quite understood is perfect for horror's Oedipal obsessions. Every film turns into one long primal scene, where some snot-nosed nothing views an unviewable act and then, is inevitably, obscurely, and bloodily dimembered.
Super-hero films are also daddy-fixated. Just think of little orphan Bruce or little orphan Kal-El or little orphan Peter, all trying to be worthy of that towering and absent patriarch. But that patriarch is not the ogre father. Instead, in the superhero genre, the Dad is an image of all-powerful benevolence, the parent who sweeps in to defeat the evil and make the world uber-OK for all. As inverted images of each other, horror and superheroes are too closely allied to work together very effectively. Superheroes can fight monsters, or (like the Hulk), be monsters, but they can't really be afraid of monsters and still remain in the superhero genre. Which is why, going in, my expectations were quite low for Chronicle, the new found-footage superhero exercise. A primal scene that ends in everyone dead and the walls drenched with internal organs makes sense. A primal scene that ends with daddy patting you on the head and making everything all right? What kind of trashy genre fun is that?
Happily, and to my surprise, Chronicle's turns out to provide quite a bit of genre fun, and a touching little parable to boot. The film early on embraces the infantilizing connotations of peeping at the world through a hand-held viewfinder. Andrew (Dane DeHaan), our schlubby Peter Parker analogue, wanders around the school with his new camera, freaking out the cheerleaders and prompting those above him in the male pecking order (a.k.a. "everybody") to punch him in the lens. His geekish adolescent inconsequentiality is linked to the found-footage genre itself from the very first scene. We see him with his camera out, filming himself in the mirror on his bedroom door while his drunk, belligerent father pounds on the other side, demanding to be let in. Right from the start, the powerful father and the peeping kid overlap, the child simultaneously threatened by, fearing, and becoming his sire.
As you know if you've seen any press at all, Andrew does in fact seize that rod of mastery. He and his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and Matt's magnetic friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan) find an (ahem) giant hole in the ground leading to a subterranean tunnel, at the end of which there's some glowing whatsit and the secret of true potency. All three gain telekinetic powers, and the bulk of the film is devoted to their euphoric exploration of their expanding repertoire of abilities, an obvious but still effective metaphor for the euphoric transition to being a grown-up.
Turning into a grown-up isn't only euphoric, of course. It's also bitter and frightening and depressing, as Andrew discovers. He is the most powerful of the three friends, probably, the film implies, because he wants the most to escape from his own hyperbolic Stan-Lee-melodrama powerlessness—his abusive father, his dying mother, his social ostracism. The last is mitigated by his friendship with Steve and Matt. When Andrew's powers get him a girl, though, everything goes to hell. For a moment, it seemed like he was going to get out of adolescence alive. But the ogre father is wiley. If he doesn't eat you, he will inhabit you.
A good bit of the film's success is due to the uniformly likable actors and some genuinely witty writing ("What would Jung say about glowsticks?" is a keeper of a line—and suggests that the creators here are not by any means oblivious to their film's psychoanalytic implications.) What's best about Chronicle, though, is the way that it uses the found-footage style to reinvigorate the superhero genre in a way that's rare in superhero comics and blockbuster superhero movies alike. The film doesn't rethink superheroics in any significant way: Protagonists with hapless secret identities go back to the invention of the form, and protagonists-gone-bad are almost their own subgenre at this point. But the jury-rigged look restores some of the glamour lost through familiarity. The scene where the three friends learn to fly, for example, is only enhanced by the small budget FX. Iron Man or that first Christopher Reeves Superman wanted to dazzle us with the spectacle of defying gravity, but Chronicle's jerking camera and poor audio is much more focused on the way the three friends whoop and holler and fall all over each other with utterly childish glee. Their enthusiasm, and the film's enthusiasm, is small enough to be infectious. You come away thinking, yes, flying would be pretty fucking awesome. Which, surely, is the point of superheroes if anything is.
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The point of suprheroes is also, arguably, that you can't fly. Superheroes are adolescent empowerment fantasies, but they're also, and equally, disempowerment fantasies. Wanting to be the uberdaddy is also and always about not being the uberdaddy; the Oedipal complex is always about never being good enough. Andrew can dress up in his dad's firefighters uniform and go out with his superpowers to save his mom, but when it's all over he's lying in bed with his father ranting at him about how he's not worthy.
In this context, the film's surprising refusal to follow through rigorously on its own genre conventions has an odd resonance. While it is a found footage film, it's an oddly ambivalent one. We start out seeing only footage from Andrew's camera, but as the movie goes on it picks up images from other people's cameras and then from security cameras in a generalized hodgepodge. Similarly, the end of the film, with the camera far, far away from any likely discoverer, neatly invalidates the conceit that the found footage will ever be found.
A horror film like recent The Devil Inside is committed to at least pretending it believes in its own conceit; the evil Overthing really is real—no, man! It really is! Chronicle, on the other hand, treats the found footage itself as a trope. Whenever we switch camera views, it's an acknowledgment that this isn't actually happening, reminding us this isn't real instead of trying to persuade us that it is. If horror is meant to convince us of the terrifying truth of the primal scene, this not-quite-found-footage in Chronicle seems like an acknowledgement that the primal scene and the uberdaddy himself are just stories we're telling ourselves. No all-powerful being is going to destroy us or save us. If we take his place, we'll still just be where we always were, stumbling along between childhood and adulthood, with no one watching.