Having finally rented Chronicle (released February, 2012 and directed by Josh Trank), I am convinced the ‘found-footage’ genre is here to stay, and as with any genre, will span a wide continuum of those who got it right and those who didn’t. It’s not a wide gap at present, to be sure. I think Blair Witch Project exhibits the best of the genre thus far and included somewhere in some order on the other end are Cloverfield, Project X, and The Devil Inside. Not surprisingly, the majority of ‘found-footage’ films fall also under the ‘horror’ genre, which begs the question: “Is horror a necessary characteristic of the found-footage genre?” If not, then has the found-footage film genre evolved enough already to be defined by sub-categories?
I don’t think so. The found-footage film Chronicle, a good movie in its own right, can clearly be defined as drama, action, or even as the more recently self-defined ‘superhero’ film. It shares traits with all of these, but while it struggles with a clear identity, it succeeds as a lost-and-found document and is a stepping stone toward expanding the found-footage genre beyond horror.
I have heard some criticism that Chronicle doesn’t need to be a found-footage film; that it could’ve been shot traditionally as a darker, original take on the superhero genre; that Andrew’s (Dane DeHaan) obsession with his $500 dollar h-d camera is a gimmick to capture audiences still excited by the idea of found-footage through such successes as Paranormal Activity. It’s hard to deny some of these assumptions whole-heartedly. Andrew, already sorely bullied, is a little bit unbelievable to brazenly carry his camera through jock-crowded hallways at his school. At one point, he even drops the camera onto the floor. It would’ve been an easy edit to have the camera feel the impact, blink, static, or short out until the next shot (but then again, it is a $500 camera).
These minor annoyances aside, though, Andrew’s obsession is not so unbelievable. In today’s world, where bullied teenagers take drastic action on themselves as a result of social torment, one can sympathize with Andrew as he struggles to validate his own existence through film. The found-footage is a tool, just as third-person limited is a narrative tool, and just as film is a visual-audio tool of narrative expression.
While horror has been the dominant genre in which found-footage has been used, it cannot be the characteristic that defines it. Horror has succeeded so well in found footage because it is already tragically structured. It rides on suspense by tugging at our base instinct to survive. Placing the viewer in the direct perspective of a character holding the camera, we are made to sympathize more, to become as close to the illusionary plight as we can (this is why Cloverfield failed; the cameraman and nearby characters must be both believable and likeable; at least there should be some reason to care about them). Even from a hidden camera, this effect is pronounced. Paranormal Activitytraps us within such a limited, dangerous space that claustrophobia at a minimum puts us on edge before adding on all the ghosts, cults, and other monsters we want to fear. Horror projects the viewer toward travesty as on a roller-coaster, and the small potential for survival keeps us thrilled. Found-footage thrives on showing us the ride in detail.
Centered around the notion of young adults gaining superpowers, Chronicle redefines the horror-centric qualities of found footage. Andrew, Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) are three very different teenagers whose discovery of an alien anomaly propels their own social circumstances exponentially. The bullied Andrew, who happens to also suffer tremendous domestic suffering, is the one ingredient for disaster. It is through the footage of his camera that the travesty so inherent to horror is foreshadowed.
Only this is not horror in the traditional monster-movie sense; it is the consumption of too much power in the hands of one abused. It is all the more enthralling that these powers are real; not literally, but in the capabilities of those who are evil, their results are possible. What we get in found-footage is a limited, more focused perspective that seems to have found a niche for the darker aspects of the human condition, whether as horror or drama. Chronicle is the freshest take on the found-footage genre, and I hope more like it come to broaden its forms.