Review: ‘Chronicle’ Has Fun As ‘Unbreakable: The High School Years’ But Suffers Found Footage Fatigue
Found footage films are often called (by me at least) the new 3D for a few reasons. They’re clearly enjoying a surge similar to the one enjoyed by 3D films for the past couple years. They’re cropping up in a handful of different genres. They’re almost never an integral or relevant element of the film’s narrative.
And most filmmakers who employ the technique have no goddamn clue how to make it work.
Which brings us to the fun albeit cliched and otherwise entertaining Chronicle.
“The camera needs to stay on for our investigation.”
Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is somewhat of an outcast at school, but the bullying and harassment is still a welcome relief from the abusive father and mother on her cancerous deathbed at home. His cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), is one of the few bright spots as he makes an effort to hang out with Andrew and help him assimilate into high school. Both of them rank far down on the pecking order though when compared with Steve (Michael B. Jordan) who just may be the most popular kid in school. The three of them bond one drunken and curious night when they discover a cave in the woods with a mysterious object inside. Lights, sparks and general confusion give way to the three teens discovering some startling new abilities.
They can manipulate physical objects with their mind. In short, their telekinesis eventually leads to being able to lift, throw and crush items as big as a car. And once they discover that their own bodies are simply objects they begin to master the art of flight as well. But with great power comes, well, you know, and a reflexive act of aggression by Andrew leads to the boys setting ground rules. Don’t use the powers in public, don’t use them on living creatures and don’t use them when you’re angry.
It doesn’t take someone who’s actually seen the movie to see what’s coming next, and soon Andrew’s sadness and rage mix to volatile and deadly effect.
Chronicle is essentially a Carrie-inspired, teenage riff on M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable complete with high school dramas and a catering toward shorter attention spans. We’re witness to an origin story of both hero and potential villain and an ideological clash of comic book proportions.
The first two thirds feature a surprising amount of character work, and even if the results are predictable and lacking in any degree of originality the effort is still a pleasant surprise. The three leads all do well in their roles and show real personality in scenes both comedic and dramatic even if their characters don’t always act the way you’d expect. I can buy that none of them rush out and start saving lives, but one leaf blower gag aside there aren’t even any Zapped-style moments of bikini tops popping off or cameras floating into the girls’ locker room. That may just be the most unbelievable aspect of the entire film.
There’s a brief scene at a party where the possibility is teased that the story is going to buck cliches with a fresh and bold turn of events, but it’s quickly dropped in favor the obvious. But as unoriginal as the script events are they lead nicely into a third act that entertains and excites with larger scale action, well crafted special effects and a darker edge that’s both welcome and appreciated. At ninety minutes the movie never drags or bores, and once the big battle begins time flies alongside the characters and miscellaneous objects onscreen.
Were this a standard, gimmick-free film the review could essentially end here, but for some reason director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis decided their debut feature should be in the found footage format. Some films manage to make that into a naturally explained positive, with Rec being the finest example. That film featured a news crew filming and lighting the way with a camera, so it made sense as well as heightened several of the film’s scares.
Chronicle’s use of the format accomplishes nothing aside from annoyance and a very clear disregard for logic. Andrew decides early on to film the events, and the script’s one cool trick is how it gets around the use of his camera through several scenes. But there’s also a girl who exists for no reason aside from having another camera in the mix as she shows up periodically filming everything for no good reason. She even pulls a Cloverfield by occasionally focusing the camera on Matt while helicopters are crashing around them or they’re being thrown through the air. And don’t get me started on the number of times edits are made to the video but the audio stays continuously in sync.
Nitpicking at its execution aside, there’s no real purpose for the found footage angle. Who assembled the footage from all of these disparate sources (including security cameras, cell phones and police car cams) and why? It doesn’t fit the “police evidence” explanation used by the Paranormal Activity films, and it’s not presented as a record compiled by a specific individual. The only purpose it serves is to the title.
It’s a minor shame the film went that route as the characters, narrative and overall execution are all part of an otherwise enjoyable piece of popcorn entertainment. It’s fantastic to see new filmmakers working with a small budget turn out a product that’s as exciting and fun as Chronicle, but I just wish they had resisted the urge to pander to trends. See the movie, shrug off the ill conceived found footage aspect and you’ll have a good time at the movies.
The Upside: Fun and creative effects; third act is exciting and filled with aggressive action.
The Downside: Found footage angle is pointless and at times nonsensical; script is predictable and offers no surprises with its characters; no footage of trio discovering their ability seems odd.
On the Side: Max Landis is currently writing a script based on a book by Max Brooks for a film that will be directed by Jason Reitman and most likely star Colin Hanks. (This is not true, but someone should make it happen.)