The problem I have with Chronicle is essentially the problem I have with every found-footage movie: At some point in time, it becomes prudent to put the camera down. I’m sure there’s some basis for it in reality, but the footage-obsessed amateur cameraman seems like a convention created entirely for this sort of movie, and Chronicle takes it even further by inviting along a character who films every aspect of her rather typical high school life for a video blog—something that seems illegal, if not particularly worth watching. Chronicle has a better selling point than most found-footage films, however. Instead of documenting a haunted house or demonic possession, the teenagers at the center of the movie discover something that’s not of this world and are, as a result, imbued with telekinetic abilities.
Three boys—outcast filmographer Andrew (Dane DeHaan), prom king candidate Steve (Michael B. Jordan), and Andrew’s popular cousin Matt (Alex Russel)—find a hole in the ground that leads to a bunch of glowing rocks They touch it, then their noses start to bleed. The next day, they discover that they have an apparently minor superpower—the ability to move small objects with their mind. Quickly, they push this ability, discovering that it is not unlike a muscle—the more they use it, the stronger it becomes. Unlike most superhero movies, which allow their heroes only a moment of joy at the onset of their powers, Chronicle allows the boys most of the movie to have fun discovering what they can do, and they go about telekinesis as you’d expect teenage boys to do: trying to stop hurled baseballs, building LEGO towers without their hands, messing around with people in a toy store, using a leaf-blower on a passing girl’s skirt. Eventually, they find that they can fly.
If Chronicle were just this–three dudes getting powers and pushing the limits of those powers, perhaps struggling with the implications of them—it would easily have been much better than most movies using the found-footage gimmick. But Chronicle has a dark underbelly that drives the plot, that gives the whole thing a fairly standard beginning and an ultimately disappointing end. To fill in these gaps, director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis give Andrew an origin out of a John Hughes movie. He’s poor and shy, his mother is dying, his father is a raging alcoholic. He buys a camera and begins filming his life as a self-defense mechanism, a way of documenting the means by which life tortures him. He has certain odd tics—taking the camera to a party, filming cheerleaders as they practice—but beyond the bullies who kick his camera around and the occasional request that Andrew turn off the camera—a request that goes unfulfilled—most of the people he knows don’t figure his behavior as weird. The fact that he continues filming everything even after he telekinetically pushes a truck into the lake, however, complicates things. Is he filming to document his life, or to sate his ego? Given his urge to spill intensely personal things to Steven, who he’s only known for a few weeks, and to accuse Matt of not really being his friend, it’s probably a little bit of both.
It’s entirely possible to enjoy Chronicle on the basis of pure spectacle. Andrew’s mastery of telekinesis is such that he’s able to move the camera around without being behind it, often while doing other things. When he can’t, there’s other footage to be found—from police helicopters, live news reports, the camera belonging to Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), the life-blogger. For the most part, though, it’s Andrew shooting Andrew, and if it seems like it’d be smart of him to not take the camera along on certain parts of his journey, the film asks that we consider him a sort of Ozymandias. Look upon his works and tremble. It’s well and good to go beyond the conventions of a found footage movie, and the camera, rather than lend itself to the implausibility of the movie (“oh man, I’ve got to film this giant monster!”), is a nice, subtle touch: Andrew’s good at what he does, knows it, and is showing off to be a prick.
That being said, Chronicle falls short of being a compelling origin story for Andrew, Matt, or Steve. Its comic book plot is so shopworn, so connect-the-dots obvious that it’s hard to take Andrew seriously as sympathetic lead or potential danger to mankind. Maybe it’s because I’m a cynical ex-comic book store employee, but the mixture of broken home and superpowers strikes me as a bit stale. With more time, maybe Andrew’s home life would have felt more genuine, perhaps the eventual conflict with his father (Michael Kelly) would have felt like a triumph, something that would then give way to horror as Andrew continued to sour, become more confident in his abilities. But then again, the big battle scene would need to wait until the sequel, and in a society where we’re so bored that we’ll film ourselves being bored, I suppose there’s no time for pathos. Bring on the explosions and flying buses, then. They’ll do, in a pinch.
Chronicle. Directed by Josh Trank. With Dane DeHaan (Andrew), Alex Russel (Matt), Michael B. Jordan (Steve), Michael Kelly (Richard Detmer), and Ashley Hinshaw (Casey). Released Febuary 3, 2012, by 20th Century Fox.