When a high school loser gains superpowers through an encounter with a mysterious crystalline structure, will it help him become happy, popular and successful or will it amplify his dark side and give his anger an outlet so he can lash out against his hurtful world, gradually increasing in power until nothing can stop him and he goes on a rampage? That’s the concept behind Chronicle, but the film ends up an all-too-predictable formula film built around “found footage” cinematography and a series of completely inexplicable relationships.
The loser in Chronicle is Andrew (a sullen Dane DeHaan), who is bullied at his nightmarish high school, beaten and abused by his alcoholic ex-firefighter father (Michael Kelly), and has not a single friend. In an attempt to create a psychological barrier, Andrew acquires an expensive video camera and videotapes everything that happens in his life. The entire film is shot from either the point of view of Andrew’s camera, that of video blogger Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) or surveillance cameras that are on scene during the later action scenes.
The other two main characters in the film are Andrew’s cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who has an inexplicably warm, supportive relationship with Andrew, and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), a popular athlete who is running for school president when the film opens. Given the cliché horrible high school that they attend, rife with bullies and completely unsupervised (we never see a single teacher or adult in any of the school scenes), the two handsome, popular boys befriending perpetual loser Andrew was the most baffling story element of the film.
The common underlying theme of this genre is redemption and it’s a satisfying hero’s journey to watch the troubled child gifted with some amazing powers, learn to tame them – and his own dark impulses – and ultimately become a happy adult. By deliberately not taking us on this journey, Chronicle creates a tension that is never resolved, something that left the audience unsatisfied and disappointed with the good vs. evil finale.
I wanted to like Chronicle. I like films about teens who gain powers and learn to master them and create their own life — kinda like The Karate Kid — but the predictability, the formula, the cliche-ridden storyline made the movie more of a series of impressive special effects in search of a story than anything else. Definitely skip this in the cinema and its worth as a rental depends on how much you care about storyline.
Starting with the surprise success of The Blair Witch Project, the cinematic style of found footage has run its course, yet we’re still seeing films exploiting it for a cinema vérité effect. It was tired when we saw it in Apollo 18 last year, and it’s even more tired in Chronicle. Used sparingly — as it was brilliantly used in 127 Hours — it can be very effective. Perhaps I should cut freshman director Josh Trank some slack in his first cinematic outing, but less awkward framing, fewer creepy cut-outs and scratchy audio would have been a welcome improvement to the movie.
The high school world presented in the film is also right out of a 50s drama, unrelentingly unpleasant with a parade of bullies and jerks. High school isn’t necessarily the best time of your life, but by having not a single nice person, not a single fellow loner to commiserate with, it just felt too much like a story element intended to push the film along rather than part of the complex world that Andrew, Matt and Steve inhabit. For that matter, where were Matt and Steve when Andrew was constantly being bullied, punched, and harassed?
Steve and Matt try to rescue a hapless driver, from Chronicle
The film begins to improve when Matt goads Andrew into attending an off-campus party that’s more of a rave, with hundreds of attractive teens dancing, waving glow-sticks and getting drunk. Predictably, he brings his video camera and we get to see him being beaten up by a guy who (correctly) assumes that Andrew is videotaping his girlfriend and takes offense. Enter Steve, handsome, popular, and athletic, who helps Andrew clean up his surprisingly durable camera and videotape a pit that they’ve found in the woods.
The descent into the pit and encounter with the mysterious crystalline structure that certainly appears to have some living organism within is one of the best scenes in the film. Creepy and effective, it’s a mini-horror film scene, but all too soon it cuts to black and we switch to the three boys exploring their newly found telekinetic powers.
A gripe, though: Every time they use their telekinetic powers, they get a nosebleed. Later, Matt gets nosebleeds because Andrew is using his power, even more weird. But what is it with these bloody noses that it’s such a stock element of telekinetic power? Is there some otherwise unknown cinematic law that requires great mental exertion to cause your nose to bleed? It was used effectively in the creepy Scanners, but since then it’s fallen into the category of tired cinematic trope.
Once they realize that they have these psychic powers, the next thirty minutes of the film prove the best, as the three boys learn the limits and capabilities of their power, including some predictable – and realistic — pranks, including making a leaf blower turn on to blow up a girl’s skirt and animating a stuffed animal to frighten a young girl, reaching its zenith with Andrew performing astonishing feats of magic at a school talent show. Immediately thereafter the film loses its way as Andrew has one bad experience after another and withdraws into his own angry world and realizes that he can use his telekinetic abilities to wreak revenge. Think Carrie, but with less imagination.
Between the tired use of a “found footage” cinematic style, the completely inexplicable relationships between the boys — including completely glossing over why popular athlete Steve spends every day with Andrew and Matt rather than with his gorgeous girlfriend — and the crassly obvious “yup, we left it open for a sequel” ending, Chronicle ends up a disappointing film, one that felt more like a series of impressive special effects in search of a story than a well-thought-out teen angst movie.