The major films in this genre are: Cannibal Holocaust (1980), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Paranormal Activity (2007), and Cloverfield (2008).
CH: a film crew goes to the Amazon basin to find a documentary team that's gone missing in the hostile territory.
BWP: three people are lost in the woods a witch or ghost supposedly (does indeed) haunts.
PA: weird, creepy stuff happens in a couple's home involving a ghost/demon.
Cloverfield: a Godzilla-sized monster is attacking NYC and a group of friends try to rescue someone trapped during the chaos.
99% of the films in this genre have been influenced by one of these four movies (documentary crew; being lost/chased; being haunted; monster attack). (The exception, as far as I can tell: Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998)).
99% are horror films (The Troll Hunter is considered "dark fantasy", but don't let that fool you). Most depict graphic violence. Every one has murder.
Read the reviews of Paranormal Activity 3 and you see critics bemused by the fact that this genre isn't dead yet, that it hasn't "gone away".
Found Footage may well have died if Chronicle had never been made.
Director: Josh Trank
Screenplay: Max Landis
Andrew (the angsty one): Dane DeHaan
Matt (the philosophical cousin): Alex Russell
Steve (the cool kid): Michael B. Jordan
Andrew's shitty dad: Michael Kelly
His sick mom: Bo Petersen
The camera wielding hottie Matt crushes on: Ashley Hinshaw
Purple-haired girl that ends the good times: Anna Wood
In every found footage film to date, the plot gimmick trumps the characters. In Cannibal Holocaust it's the excessive violence. In Blair Witch it's the legend of the Blair Witch (and her attack on the characters). In Paranormal Activity it's the bumps in the night turning to thumps and wallops and being dragged down the hall. In Cloverfield it's the monster and scale.
Characterization exists in these films, and their predecessors, but only briefly. We're given dynamics, then these people react. They're consumed by what's happening to them.
In other words, we aren't watching character growth. It's not like a drama or comedy where people are living their lives, something happens, their lives change, and they try to accommodate, eradicate, or embrace this change. There's no opportunity for accommodation, eradication, or embracing. The plots of found footage movies are paths toward doom. Like being mired in quicksand and dragged down. There's struggle, sure, but no chance for survival.
Look at the name of the genre. The footage is "found". And that's because the main characters are dead. We're watching to see what happened. (A lot of the time we have the gimmick at the beginning where the movie tells us where and how the "film" was recovered. Like Paranormal Activity has a police report at the beginning. Cloverfield says the footage was recovered by the US Department of Defense).
So, let's talk about Chronicle.
Yes, there's a gimmick. But it isn't a monster. It isn't a demon or a witch or a ghost. There's no murderer hunting the characters. There's no documentary crew. The gimmick is the acquisition of super powers.
What happens is this: people are living their lives, something happens, their lives change, and they try to embrace the change.
First reason why Chronicle is important: it injects traditional dramatic story-telling (involving character growth) into the found footage genre.
The characters are established. They gain their powers (action). Then we see what happens. They become friends, they learn how to use their telekinetic abilities (reaction). Then they decide to use their powers to help Andrew become popular (action). The plan works, Andrew is popular and is about to get laid for the first time (reaction). Then Andrew throws up on the girl (action). The girl freaks out and tells everyone, destroying the short-lived popularity of Andrew and sending him on a downward spiral (reaction). Steve tries to talk with Andrew (action). Andrew freaks out and hits Steve with a lightning bolt, sending him deeper into grief and lashing out at other people (reaction). Andrew's mom is near death (action). Andrew tries to rob a convenience store (reaction). Andrew's mom dies (action). Andrew's dad blames Andrew (reaction). Andrew attacks his dad, partially destroying the hospital they're in (action). Matt goes to stop Andrew (reaction). Andrew and Matt fight (action). Matt kills Andrew (reaction).
Aside: I know, you can argue that every single "action" is a "reaction", since every action stems from some previous action. I'll say that I define "action" as something that sets a tone. And "reaction" as something that falls under that tone. I think tone changes are important. Especially if you think of tone as musical notes. You can actually get a story to create a song. And I think that's what the best plots do. Listless movies have very few tone changes. Look at I Know What You Did Last Summer. The tone changes go: go party (action), hit guy with car (reaction). Dump the body (action), go on living life (reaction). Guy who they thought was dead sends them a letter (action), they all discuss the letter (reaction). Guy kills one of them (action), they try to figure out who he is (reaction). Guy kills three more of them (action), delayed reaction, instead switch to another character who is unaware and still trying to figure out who the killer is (continued reaction). And then it becomes nearly discernible. On a tonal level, the story is simple, repetitious, and, at times, out of sync. For a sweet use of tone, check out the Coen Brothers No Country For Old Men.
Second reason Chronicle is important: it introduces the sub-genres of "Superhero" and "Coming-of-age" to Found Footage.
Chronicle, is really, the origin story of a supervillain (Andrew) and a superhero (Matt). They don't have outfits or fancy gadgets, but they have powers, and their climactic battle is, I think, better than the one in Iron Man (1 and 2) and Batman Begins/The Dark Knight. (In fact, as far as superhero movies go, I'd say this is the best final fight. Look at the scale (city-wide, ground to sky), the action (flying, throwing busses, telekinetic blasts), and the stakes (Andrew convinces himself he's an apex predator because he's reached his breaking point in life (thanks to nonstop bullying) and his cousin, who had grown to love Andrew, must try to get him to stop hurting people, then, when Andrew won't stop hurting people, he has to kill him)).
Third reason Chronicle is important: it introduces the "camera jump".
Found Footage films run on the gimmick that we're watching a video recording from either some character's personal camera or a documentary that was never made (if it had been made, the film would fall into the "faux documentary" genre). (I know, you know this, but, whatever, it's always best to clarify these things).
There's one camera either wielded by one character or several. (Actually, Cannibal Holocaust uses a frame-narrative of an anthropologist attempting to locate the missing documentary team and recovering their footage. The footage is, literally, found. And we watch it along with several other characters. There's still one camera in the found footage, but the entire movie, CH, isn't "found footage").
Cloverfield passed the camera around, sort of like hot potato, until no one was left. The Troll Hunter killed its original camera guy and introduced a new one (a girl). Paranormal Activity 2 switched between several security cameras in the house, then a handheld cam. Paranormal 3 built upon the multicam transitions, but had a camera attached to a rotating fan (and used the blind spots created by the motion)(thus breaking free from the static image presented by the security cameras).
All of these were, in a way, innovations. Chronicle takes them and combines them. The first transition occurs early in the movie when Andrew is at a party. We're introduced to Casey: a camera wielding blonde girl. We switch from Andrew's camera to Casey's camera. Why is this a big deal? In The Troll Hunter the girl replaces the deceased camera dude. So it's a "second" camera but not an outsider's camera (think of it as a story being told from the third-person perspective, so the narrator is the same even though the character is different). In Paranormal Activity 2 we switch camera to camera but all the cameras are part of home security feed (again, consistent third-person perspective). There's still a sense of connectivity and containment. When Chronicle jumps from Andrew's camera to the camera of a girl we haven't met: this is the first instance of multiple narrators in found footage. It's a first-person perspective jump.
By having two cameras, two perspectives, Chronicle has already changed the genre. But then the movie goes ape shit. In the third act, Andrew's camera is pretty much abandoned. Starting with Andrew's failed robbery, the remainder of the story is told by piecing together various security camera footage, Casey's camera, TV camera feeds, phones taking video, police car cameras, etc. I'm pretty sure there's a moment, during the chaos of the final fight, when we're zoomed in on Andrew's face, that can't be attributed to any cameras--but I'm not positive.
To me, this final act BREAKS the genre wide open. Chronicle is to Found Footage wwhat James Joyce's Ulysses was to the novel. Found Footage films no longer need to stay with one camera, one narrator. They can amalgamate. They can show us footage from multiple sources, allow these things to add up, gestalt (I know "gestalt" is a noun, but nouns can be verbs).
Chronicle has pried the narrative ceiling from the Found Footage genre. There's no longer an excuse for tone-deaf or character-stagnant plots. There's now a precedent for taking the genre beyond monsters/documentaries/demons/ghosts/graphic violence. There's the possibility for shifts in filming style and character voice that could potentially change movies forever*.
(Think about it. Andrew and Casey are both amateurs. Imagine if they were two professional film makers both filming the same story but in their own ways. You would still have a singular story being told, but each perspective has its own style, utilizes different techniques (something literature does all the time). You could have the one director be Kubrick-ian. The other Scorsese-ian. Or Cameron-ian. Or Kurasawa-ian. Or Altman-ian. Or Ratner-ian (HA). You could then take this one step further and have a non-Found Footage film, just your every day, regular type of movie where the camera isn't a part of the diegetic world, except the style changes--cinematography, editing, sound, etc.--in noticeable ways as we shift characters. Much in the way Sin City sort of did. Or Hero hints at with its various retellings of the plot. So where most movies now are presented like The Great Gatsby (the novel) or a John Grisham novel, we could have our first films resembling Gravity's Rainbow, Underworld, Terra Nostra, The Waste Land--not in length, because these books (and the one poem) are humongous; but in the way these works are stylistically diverse and masterful. Like Paris je t'aime except constructing a single plot rather than refracting one emotion).
Did I like it:
Yes. I loved it.
It does everything I want it to. So. I'm a big fan of realized potential. So what's the potential for telekinetic powers? Flying is one. If they can levitate and move other objects, why not themselves? Thus we have the cut from them floating 20 or so feet off the ground to speeding through the sky. Which is one of my all-time favorite cuts. This is a great example of realized potential. If they can float, they should be able to fly. The film could have spent several minutes showing us the first tentative moments as they ascend into the clouds, the debate that preceded this where they discuss how safe it is, about how if they can't control themselves they'll fall to their deaths----the entire thing could have been dragged on. Instead we go from watching them discovering how to float to barreling mach speed through the clouds. We go from novice to expert with one cut. Lack of control to Total control.
Destructive force is also a potential. And that develops over time. But it's realized. We go from throwing baseballs, to knocking a car off the road, to flying, to throwing a human, to ripping out teeth, to channeling lightning, to crushing a car, to an explosion, to javelining buses and cars through the air, to concussive waves, to murder with a spear (albeit in self-defense). The use of the powers mirrors Andrew's emotional state. When he's whimsical and happy, he uses his powers for whimsical and harmless things. When he's frustrated, he knocks a car off the road. His seething anger at his abusive father is counter-balanced by Matt and Steve's friendship. When he loses that friendship, Andrew loses his leash. We know it's only a matter of time before the dad pushes Andrew too far. That's when the explosion happens.
Counter to the destructive force aspect is, of course, the heroic use of powers. And that's where Matt comes in. We have one character who takes the "dark side" of the powers to the extreme and another who embodies the extreme "light side". Like in Star Wars, the dark side powers seem more powerful (Jedi don't get force lightning), but the light side wins out.
I'm now realizing how much Chronicle was influenced by Star Wars.
I think Chronicle does a shit ton of things really well. There are complaints about some plot points. I don't feel like going into that right now. That's a whole other analysis. I agree with the review by Travis Bean. Chronicle keeps itself from being a GREAT movie by being a little too short and explaining itself a lot. But I think Trank and Landis were conscious of this.
You can categorize most great films as either
Insanely Thorough (The Godfather; Seven Samurai; There Will Be Blood; The Silence of the Lambs)
or Confoundingly Opaque (2001: A Space Odyssey; Fight Club; No Country For Old Men; Last Year at Marienbad; Red Desert)
Or both (Apocalypse Now; Taxi Driver; A Clockwork Orange, Citizen Kane).
Movies that are both don't fall into the middle, if we're imagining the spectrum represented by a horizontal bar with Insanely Thorough on the left end and Confoundingly Opaque on the right end. We plot them on both ends of the spectrum.
Movies like Gladiator or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon are Thorough, and they're great, but they're not on the same level as The Godfather.
And something like Memento is Confounding but not Opaque. Same with Inception. We're at a loss for how to explain the plot points, but we're not really missing what the movie is ABOUT (Memento, I would argue, while entertaining, holds zero thematic intent; every story has themes, whether the writer is aware of it or not--they're a byproduct of plot--but Memento doesn't build to a grand statement about the state of things or the human condition). 2001 is ABOUT something. Fight Club is ABOUT something. A Clockwork Orange is ABOUT something.
Movies that fall into the middle are things like The Shawshank Redemption. The movie is pretty thorough and has a purpose. It's a Wonderful Life. Thorough and has a purpose.
Chronicle is thorough and has a purpose. Which is why it's successful. But it's not INSANELY THOROUGH. It's only 77 minutes. And it's not CONFOUNDINGLY OPAQUE. It takes the time to explain a lot of its emotional and thematic movites. Like when Matt tells Andrew taking a camera everywhere is sort of like putting up a barrier between him and other people. And Matt says, "Maybe I want a barrier." I think Trank and Landis are smart enough to know this line isn't necessary. The characters don't have to TELL us what's going on. But. If you want to appeal to mainstream audiences...You don't go for extremes. You go for the middle ground. If Chronicle had wanted to be CONFOUNDINGLY OPAQUE, Matt wouldn't have suggested anything about the barrier (we would have to pick up on it). Had it simply wanted to be Opaque, Matt would have made the statement about the barrier and Andrew wouldn't have responded. But Chronicle wants people to like and understand it, it wants to fall into the happy middle ground. So we have the statement and the confirmation.
("What about bad movies? Where do they fall Mr. Smarty Pants?" Let me start by thanking you for calling my pants smart. That's nice of you! A bad movie can still be really thorough. Being really thorough or opaque isn't the only condition for greatness. But I don't think you can make a truly great film or novel or piece of music or work of art that isn't either Insanely Thorough or Confoundingly Opaque. All masterpieces have one or both of these qualities. And most mainstream popular stuff falls in the middle ground. Think Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" (IT + CO) compared to Sinatra's "That's Life" (middle ground) compared to the Black Eyed Peas's stupid "I Got a Feeling" (It's thorough in its repetition, but that doesn't make it good (look, it's catchy, and fun before a night out, but it's about as kindergarten as you can get (they rhyme "ball" and "all" and "town" and "down") and has meh singing; I don't think it's a good song)). Or compare Christina's and Whitney's songs (IT with lyrical dashes of O & P) to "Spice World" (which is confounding, but in the hilarious kind of "this makes NO sense hahaha" sort of way).)
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What it's good for:
-a cinematic experience like never before
-people don't always buy the "the character carries a camera everywhere" thing
-it is a sci-fi movie
-the mythology isn't explored; we don't know, really, what gave them their powers, just that they get them (I think this is fine but it could bother some people)(I mean, we see how they get their powers, but we don't know what that thing was or why it gave them powers).
% Character / % Actor's personality or previous roles
I'm just going to give them all 100% because I have never seen any of them in anything else and I believed they believed they were these people.
Also liked their work in:
Haven't seen anything else by any of them, so...