There’s plenty to like about Chronicle – the latest in a long line of found-footage flicks to pour through the floodgates since Cloverfield smashed the Statue of Liberty’s head through it – but this seems to be a case where the medium obscures the message (or better yet, annoys us to the point where we no longer care what the message even is). Director Josh Trank makes his feature film debut with this tale of three teenage boys who are mysteriously charged with awe-inspiring powers. Handily, the most emotionally unstable of the boys had already developed a habit of obsessively recording his inane high school life on camera. Though his newfound telekinesis and flying abilities offer far more interesting material than, say, him just eating lunch, the footage – and the film in general – still suffers from a certain vapidness. Like all YouTube videos featuring self-documenting narcissists, it begs for your attention, but doesn’t offer all that much in return.
The aforementioned unstable boy is Andrew (Dane DeHaan), and he ostensibly purchases a camera to tape his drunk dad’s violent outbursts, and, as is not-so-astutely pointed out later, to act as a barrier between him and the world. Shy, and pretty weird (did we mention he’s carrying a camera everywhere?), his sort-of-cool cousin Matt (Alex Russell) doesn’t even want to be seen with him in public. They begrudgingly attend a barn party together, where Mr. Popularity, Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), asks Andrew to bring his mechanical appendage to the site of a strange cave in the middle of a field. The trio travels down into the abyss, discover something alien looking… and the next time we see them, they’re practicing their newfound super-talents in the backyard. The boys quickly tire of making lego blocks float, and decide to start pranking lame, non-powerful civilians (moving cars from one parking space to another with their mind, etc.). Matt and Steve are content to have these nifty tricks up their sleeve, but Andrew – revealed to be the strongest and most disturbed of the three – starts calling himself an ‘apex predator’ and seeks to right the wrongs in his world.
Audiences have accepted the concept of amateur documentarians being willing and able to record alien invasions, apartment-block viral outbreaks, and even exorcisms gone terribly wrong. Chronicle might stretch their credulity to breaking point, however. Not because its subject matter is ridiculous – Max Landis’ screenplay is grounded and thoughtful, if a little bland – but because it works so hard to wedge a handheld camera into every scene. To the point of absurdity, even. For example, there are a lot of instances where someone has presumably set up a tripod to film an argument, and occasionally characters will point handycams at one another while having a regular conversation. Trank’s approach to the traditional superhero origin is novel; if only the way in which the story was told didn’t keep distracting us from the story itself.
Despite these criticisms, Chronicle is mostly an enjoyable ride. A fair few sequences verge on exhilarating, particularly when Andrew, Matt and Steve soar through the skies (camera in tow, of course). There are plenty of surprises littered throughout the picture, and it all builds to a spectacularly engrossing finale in the streets of Seattle. Trank and Landis treat comic-book tropes seriously and reverently, even if their depiction of high school life is fairly out-of-touch. And though it might be lacking in character, Chronicle is, at the very least, a decent variation on old superhero mythology, and pays off far better than Season One of Heroes – which is really all we could have asked for.
Chronicle is now showing in Australian cinemas.