Told via the best CGI money can buy and well, what's delivered is not a bad tale of teen angst gone ...WOW.
The acting by these unheralded players is straightforward and earnest - you don't get the feeling that these guys are ever out of character or parroting lines; which helps the believability factor. The direction of Josh Trank and co-writer Jay Alaimo is crisp and steady - you never get the feeling that the film has detoured into backstory (which is necessary to explain why things begin to go badly, especially in the case of Andrew, the son of an abusive father).
The script is adept at giving us the feeling that, yes, if you were 16 and this incredible thing happened to you; you might very well react in a similar fashion. The mystery of how the powers were given and how said powers grow within each of the three boys is well handled - in fact the entire enterprise is well done - I just wish they could have sidestepped the footage gimmick entirely - or relegated it to the first half... although there were some inventive shots purportedly using emergency vehicle cameras and the like to keep you in the action when no hand held could have possibly been used.
In all, a good, entertaining yarn; with a decent amount of depth to it as the boys explore not only their new gained power, but their psyches as well.
After discovering a mysterious hole in the ground, three teenagers develop telekinetic powers that at first they use for fun. Two of the three teenagers are well-adjusted, popular kids (Matt and Steve) but the third (Andrew) is an abused, bullied kid. Now faced with having a power that he's never possessed, Andrew's instincts become darker.
What happens next is an intelligent mixture of Stephen King's "Carrie" and a modern superhero drama. "Chronicle" veers dangerously close to becoming a heavy-handed morality tale about the perils of power, but the film wisely just skirts that inclination and instead delivers a wise slice of adolescent angst.
Which brings us to the aforementioned found-footage filming technique. For "Chronicle" it works especially after the it gets over its awkward beginnings. But the filmed angle allows "Chronicle" to feel rawer, forces the performances to be more natural and by switching camera angles, the scenes actually feel more realistic than many big-budget CGI films.
A bigger surprise are the performances. The three leads are revelations with standout Dane DeHaan as troubled Andrew. He effectively showcases the darkness behind this poor teenager's eyes.
With all that, "Chronicle" still remembers to deliver on the thrills, and at times it's incredibly thrilling - the last scene alone is a high-energy, loud highlight. While not perfect, as the found footage doesn't always work, "Chronicle" transcends the expected and is one of the highlights of the 2011 film season.
Chronicle comes from the pen of Max Landis, the son of director John Landis who already has a burgeoning reputation as a screenwriter. Landis Jr. cut his teeth on the TV series Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, as well as making cameos in his father's later works like The Stupids, Blues Brothers 2000 and Burke and Hare. He is clearly someone with a deep-rooted appreciation for genre movies, coupled with a desire to pick apart clichés and laugh at the absurdity of comic book storylines. This is demonstrated in his short film The Death and Return of Superman, in which he unpicked one of DC Comics' most infamous storylines with the help of big name stars like Elijah Wood and Simon Pegg.
The first aspect of Chronicle that impresses is its brisk storytelling. Superhero films with big money behind them often fall down on this detail, either getting bogged down in the origin story of their character or being too concerned with whizz-bang action to tell a story in the first place. Within 15 minutes of Chronicle it becomes clearly that neither Landis nor first-time director Josh Trank are suffering any fools. The editing is ruthless and the plot zips along at a rewarding pace. The character developments are not hurried per se: they are simply handled with so little padding that it is something of a pleasant surprise.
The second aspect which impresses is how good the film looks. Even in this age of digital filmmaking, where cameras and equipment are relatively cheap, it's not that easy to achieve something slick and professional on a budget of $15m. The film was shot entirely in Cape Town and Vancouver, and yet you would swear you were looking at the same sets that featured in The Amazing Spider-Man - a film that cost 20 times as much. While this isn't a film that revels in period details or pop culture references, it looks and feels like a big-budget blockbuster will all the fat trimmed off.
It's not just the set-dressing that impresses, however. The special effects in Chronicle are prominent and almost entirely CGI, but they are used constructively to polish the characters' actions and as for the most part well-integrated. Some of the later scenes involving the destruction of the city are rather too similar to those in Cloverfield, but the film is every bit as fun and successful in depicting desperation and panic. Even when the characters' stunts become outlandish and drift well into comic book territory, we care about them to such an extent that even these extraordinary stunts feel physical, sometimes even painful.
The only downside to these impressive visuals is that they conspire to undermine the found footage look that Trank is going for. Chronicle is unusual in that the found footage motifs (shaky camera, sporadic editing, unusual angles etc.) were largely added in post-production, rather than being an integral part of the original concept. For the most part the unusual angles, caused by the characters' telekinesis, would have worked fine on its own without all the sudden jump cuts. Even with the high quality of Andrew's camera, there are certain sections which look too good to work in the found footage style, and as the film goes on the style is invoked so little that they may as well have abandoned it.
But even if we dismiss Trank's decision is a gimmick, designed to get the film a wider audience, Chronicle has a lot more to it than the vast majority of gimmicky found footage films. The film uses its unusual and impressive visuals as a jumping-on point for examining old superhero stories in a new light. In other words, it manages to embed itself in the sci-fi and comic book genres, tackling stories that have been handled many times before, while always appearing modern and somewhat adventurous in its approach.
For fans of science fiction and comics, it's fairly easy to see where Chronicle gets its inspiration. The setup is both an old-fashioned origin story (gaining powers from an unexplained, extra-terrestrial source) and a classic sci-fi thought experiment: how would we react to having superpowers, and what would the consequences be? Much like Superman's voyage from Krypton or the spider that bites Peter Parker, we can explain or speculate on the source of power as much or as little as we like. What matters are the changes that occur from being exposed to this power, and while it's hardly Superman: The Movie or Batman Begins, Chronicle is one of the better films in recent times to tackle this.
Once the story picks up steam, other references to classic works become apparent. The arc of the three main characters begins as an early Spider-man story but then takes on prominent characteristics of X-Men: our protagonists are to some degree lonely, alienated outcasts, who struggle to control their powers in light of their rapid emotional development. Certainly the final battle between Matt and Andrew is akin to a showdown between Xavier and Magneto: the former, who is powerful but benevolent, seeks to use said power for good, while the latter and arguably more powerful wants to take revenge and obliterate humanity.
Trank and Landis also cited Akira, Carrie and The Fury as influences, with the latter two being especially prominent. Both films have teenage protagonists and use blood as a symbol of power; Gillian causes others to bleed when they touch her, while Carrie's telekinesis manifests shortly after her first period and reaches its peak during the pig-blood sequence. In changing the blood-letting to a nosebleed, Chronicle takes something of primal or sexual significance and reshapes it for male protagonists, simultaneously reducing it to social embarrassment and making it an eerie harbinger for great destruction.
Even if Chronicle's main ideas aren't particularly ground-breaking, they are executed for the most part in a thrilling and entertaining way. In contrast to the havoc of the third act and the big special effects finale, the scenes of them exploring their powers and training themselves are often either funny or charming. The sequence at the talent show is very funny and adeptly staged, with Trank wringing the most he can out of simple camera angles and good effects.
There are, however, three big niggles which ultimately prevent the film from being great. Firstly, the characters aren't massively likeable to begin with: Andrew is creepy, Matt is quite bland and Steve can be annoying. The film moves quickly enough for us to stay with the action, or at least give Trank the benefit of the doubt, but there isn't enough reason for them to act quite so obnoxiously, often pandering to cliché as they do so.
The second problem, related to this, is the frat-boy feel to much of the first and second acts. It can sometimes seem that you cannot have a party with young people in an American film unless there are obscene amounts of alcohol and sexually willing women involved. The Animal House feel does kind of make sense in the scenes where the boys are discovering their powers; considering their age and background, it is logical that they would push each other through a series of stupid dares. But the party scenes are so obnoxious and generic that they tread perilously close to Project X.
The third and final problem with Chronicle is that it is not quite as clever as it thinks it is. This can be excused or at least mitigated by the relative youth of the writer and director, both of whom are talented and have the capacity to mature and develop. But none of the philosophical ideas raised in the film (such as Nietzsche's concept of the ubermensch) are developed to a satisfying extent, and it's not enough just to laugh them off as if the characters didn't mean it. Put simply, there is a big difference between invoking something to sound cool and developing it to be smart.
Chronicle is an intriguing and impressive first effort from Trank and Landis which suggests that both have a bright future ahead of them. While its ideas are not especially original, and it isn't as seamless or clever as it likes to think, it is technically impressive and feels refreshing in an increasingly homogenous mainstream. As Trank and Landis both develop, this may come to be seen as a work more of promise than of outright performance, but for those impatient for a fresh look at origin stories, it will do very nicely for now.
The film accurately portrays the teenage lifestyle (aside from certain characters filming every aspect of their life) as well as showing how people would act if they obtained superpowers. There is a lot of fun to be had at the beginning of the film but soon enough problems arise.
The visuals are actually very nice and a certain flying scene is a thrill to watch. The ending sequence is also a notable one; the unique use of phone/security cameras works well. But it's the characters that truly make "Chronicle" stand out. We care about them, even the one who turns to his darker side, and this allows us to get more invested in the powerful story.
It reminds me of "akira".
It's really the only time in this film where the found footage style doesn't feel cliche, derivative, and tedious. Like all the films before it, Chronicle still has to find silly reasons to explain why the main character wants to carry the camera around, and while these explanations are quite creative, they still require a massive suspension of disbelief. Given how amazing the special effects are, how interesting the twists and developments of the main characters' stories get, and how involving the film is towards its audience, the found footage style does a rather large disservice to an otherwise unique and intriguing movie.
Chronicle deconstructs the superhero genre by not only taking the point of view of the villain, but in showing how a person with superpowers and an anger complex can be drawn to the dark side. It's often in superhero movies that the bullied loner is often the one who gets powers and then uses them for good - like Spider-Man. But what happens when the bullied loner uses his powers against his peers. And what if the kid who is actually not inherently a good person actually takes it upon himself to stand up for humanity when it matters. Does that make him an admirable hero?
All the standard superhero fare is top notch: seeing how the ordinary kids come into contact with whatever it is that gives them power, etc. The sequences where they test out their flying abilities is particularly incredible. But Chronicle is much darker, grittier, and more intimate then the ordinary studio blockbuster. There is no flash, no big budget set pieces. The characters in Chronicle feel real, and their actions have serious consequences on the environment. Now if only director Josh Trank could have accomplished this without using the found footage style - it's possible, and that would have been an amazing achievement.