Chronicle” (2012) is the only “found-footage” superhero movie, and it’s cool that it makes the attempt, but I can’t help but think it would’ve been better without the conceit. In “The Blair Witch Project” (1999), which popularized the style, kids document an investigation with a camera. In writer Max Landis’ and director Josh Trank’s “Chronicle,” I get the sense that Andrew (Dane DeHaan) and Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) videotape things because we wouldn’t have a movie otherwise.
Granted, once Andrew, Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) gain supernatural abilities “Power Rangers”-style by visiting a cave of glowing rocks, it makes sense to chronicle it. But even before that, Andrew and Casey lug around old-school cameras and point them in people’s faces – for a blog in her case, just because in his case.
Well, I guess Andrew wants to document the physical and psychological abuse at the hands of his dad, Richard (Michael Kelly), and his generally crappy life where his mom is dying of cancer and he’s picked on at school. I don’t deny that people like Richard exist somewhere in the world, but dang this stuff is hard to watch. He’s nasty to Andrew all the time, and I feel like it’s another plot convenience that he doesn’t smash the camera, or steal it and sell it.
“Chronicle” has this much going for it: The trio seems like real friends, and their exploits are a believable mix of hijinks with superpowers. They move a woman’s parked car and capture her confused reaction when she looks for it. They giggle uproariously. They do what immature teens would do if they had superpowers.
Jordan, continuing from turns in “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” is the most likable, as Steve is a lock to win the class presidency. DeHaan (“Valerian”) is a good fit as an otherwise decent kid shaped by violence, and Russell is fairly charming as Andrew’s cousin. Matt and Steve could’ve used more layers, though. There’s something about how Matt used to be a jerk and he’s trying to show Casey he has changed, but we’ll have to take his word for it.
I’ve heard “Chronicle” described as body horror on par with David Cronenberg’s films such as “The Fly,” but I don’t think Landis and Trank go that far. (Trank does better in “Fant4stic,” although studio interference seriously harms that film.) Andrew’s problem is that he’s angry all the time. Understandable, sure, but his torment is psychological rather than physical. Aside from nosebleeds, the teens have a blast using their powers, telepathically moving Legos and playing catch with a football among the clouds.
Whether we decide the teens are par for the course or too selfish to care about, “Chronicle” doesn’t let us feel much for them. Because of the “found-footage” conceit, we’re often jerked from one scene to the next. The film does pause to reflect occasionally – I like the moment when they agree their day of learning how to fly was the best of their lives – but not enough. The tragedy of innocence lost is not achieved in this herky-jerky cut of their story.
The special effects are “Chronicle’s” highlight. The execution of the kids’ powers always looks real; the handheld style is not used as a crutch to hide subpar effects. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the shaky frames actually made it harder to execute the effects.
The grand finale reminds me of “Cloverfield” in that we’re seeing huge spectacle through handheld cameras. It’s a matter of taste, but I don’t like watching big superhero fights in this format. Even “Chronicle’s” oddity value was rather low by 2012, the same year as the fourth “Paranormal Activity.” Landis and Trank seem enamored by their experiment, but I wasn’t.