Chronicle a dark sci-fi thriller about teenage superheroes is a “found-footage” film and it counts as one of the rare instances in which in which the increasingly prevalent – and increasingly maligned – technique is appropriately deployed and not merely a cheap gimmick for manufacturing tension.
The story begins with Andrew (Dane DeHaan) a pale saturnine lad switching on a camera and declaring to his drunken father who fumes outside his bedroom door that he intends to “film everything.” And so he does. Narrating in a gloomy nasal drone he documents the daily indignities of high school – being accosted by bullies eating lunch alone on the bleachers – and crafts what by all appearances promises to be a smashing audition video for the Trenchcoat Mafia.
Andrew’s circumstances change considerably when he his cousin Matt (Alex Russell miscast as a cerebral egotist) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) the school’s reigning alpha male chance upon a hole in a forest clearing that leads them deep underground where they encounter something strange and otherworldly. Soon thereafter the boys begin to manifest powers of telekinesis that would make a Jedi envious.
Rather than don spandex suits and hunt criminals the boys do well what you would expect impulsive judgment-impaired teenage boys to do: They play pranks on unsuspecting department-store shoppers try to one-up each other with increasingly hazardous stunts absolutely dominate beer pong competitions and otherwise prove the perils of mating great power with great irresponsibility. (Their more prurient impulses it should be noted are kept safely within PG-13 limits.) This is when Chronicle is at its freshest and most compelling enacting the mischievous daydreams of sci-fi-steeped youths.
Of the three Andrew emerges as the most gifted in the use of his powers and he clearly relishes the newfound confidence they bring. But his less admirable qualities – emotional instability hypersensitivity and a troubling amorality – stubbornly remain and when events turn against him they lead him down the dark path all-too-conspicuously foreshadowed from the film's outset.
Chronicle’s director Josh Trank making his feature-film debut demonstrates a keen grasp of sci-fi theatrics as well as a gift for spectacle. He adheres strictly to found-footage parameters refusing to cheat matters even during the film’s blistering climax which cobbles together security-camera footage cell-phone recordings television news broadcasts and other video sources without losing coherence. It's a thrilling sequence unlike any the genre's seen before and a testament to Trank's technical flair.
It’s when the action slows that Trank’s hand grows exceedingly heavy pummeling us with scenes of ham-fisted histrionics that undermine the sense of verisimilitude the found-footage format is designed to foster. The milestones along Andrew's path to supervillainy are culled directly from the Handbook of Psychological Distress from the taunts of his cartoonishly abusive father to the incessant hacking of his terminally ill mother to the varied humiliations inflicted by insensitive peers. Such on-the-nose storytelling results in a thriller that markedly lacks any real element of suspense. We know precisely what’s going to happen next because the filmmakers tell us over and over again using language as subtle as a jackhammer. Moreover Chronicle’s vision is so determinedly bleak so devoutly invested in “keeping it real ” that in the end the film comes across as a ludicrously overwrought emo fantasy.