Review: "Chronicle"

Since The Blair Witch Project debuted in 1999, I have been intrigued by the concept of the found-footage film. Obviously I am not alone in that sentiment seeing as the genre has exploded over the last decade, resulting in a number of low-budget, low-quality films that consistently disappoint across the board. Still, however, I remain interested in the concept as a whole because I believe that, if it used correctly, the technique could lend itself to an outstanding film. Enter Chronicle.

Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) is your typical high school nobody. He is routinely bullied, his home life is a mess, and he has only one friend, Matt Garetty (Alex Russell), a cousin who he isn’t really close to. As a defense mechanism, Andrew starts filming everything he does, earning the ire of just about everyone around him. At a party that Matt drags him to, Andrew is approached by the school’s most popular student, Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), who asks him to bring his camera over to check out what he and Matt just discovered. What they find is a deep hole in the ground that brings them into contact with a foreign object that imbues the boys with special powers. As the film cuts from scene to scene, we see the trio learning more and more about their abilities, beginning with simple telekinesis tricks like stopping a baseball in midflight and moving up to flying high above the earth with ease. But as they grow stronger, Andrew becomes more powerful than both Matt and Steve and he begins to abuse his powers, prompting a cataclysmic confrontation in the streets of Seattle.

Chronicle hits its projected target on just about every level. It is all at once a sci-fi thriller, a superhero origin story, and, possibly most importantly, a coming-of-age drama. Andrew, Matt, and Steve may be somewhat cliché but they embody their respective roles with ease and comfort. Their relationships, actions, and motivations are completely believable; they behave exactly the way you would expect three teenagers with brand new super powers to behave. These guys aren’t immediately concerned with changing the world for the better or using their powers for good; instead, they compile numerous hand-held shots of pranks and hijinks, toss a football around at 20,000 feet, and enroll in the school’s talent show. Meanwhile, though, Andrew’s worldview becomes darker and darker, bringing the narrative back around to the concept at the core of virtually every superhero film: with great power comes great responsibility. Andrew is set up not as an evil character but rather a mere boy who can’t handle the abilities he’s been gifted along with the emotions of a troubled youth. That is an important difference that keeps Chronicle from becoming the standard good-versus-evil affair and brings more depth to the film than I might have expected going in.

First-time director Josh Trank (rumored to be Marvel’s choice to helm the Fantastic Fourreboot) displays great talent but also great restraint. He meshes the teenage angst and drama beautifully with a score of high-quality special effects shots and sequences and never stretches his film too far. Chronicle is less than 90 minutes long and while I usually take that as a red flag, in this case it fits perfectly. Any longer and the film would have run out of steam. Instead, it finishes with a bang, an extended FX sequence that concludes exactly when and how it should. Moreover, Trank’s film is perhaps the first of the genre to properly incorporate multiple viewpoints. Most of the found-footage is taken from Andrew’s camera but throughout the film, Trank interweaves shots from several other sources, particularly in the final, explosive act.

Above all else, I think what sets Chronicle apart from just about every entry from the genre is that it is a good, worthwhile story without the found-footage aspect. Rather than using the technique as a crutch to prop up a pointless story or to simply provide cheap scares, Trank and writer Max Landis crafted together an excellent film that just happens to use found-footage as its medium. Overall, Chronicle stands as a compelling and sometimes thrilling film that represents perhaps the very best the found-footage genre has ever had to offer.