Tell me an upcoming movie is a "found footage" film and I'll immediately lose interest. It's historically been a genre where things like "storytelling" and "events" are substituted for "realism," which, to people like Oren Peli, is defined as "all the characters are hatable, nothing happens for a really long time and I expect nobody in the audience to ask for their money back."
So, Chronicle is a found footage movie, which means I will never, ever be able to convince people that it's actually really entertaining and — dare I say — good.
Directed by Josh Trank (of The Kill Point) and written by Max Landis (of John's testicles), Chronicle follows a diverse trio of three high schoolers who stumble upon some mysterious underground crystals that give them telekinesis. Steve (Michael B. Jordan, a.k.a. Wallace from The Wire) is the charismatic, beloved quarterback and student body president, while Matt (Alex Russell) is a pretty regular dude who takes to quoting philosophers to sound smart. These first two dudes are pretty well-adjusted so developing their ability to lift things with their brains to the point where they can fly ain't no thing.
Then there's Matt's cousin Andrew (Dane DeHaan), the kid who happens to have a camera to document this first contact. In other words, our main character who's taken to recording every aspect of his fucked-up life. His mom's dying of cancer, his dad's cartoonishly abusive and, of course, nobody at school likes him. Matt just barely tolerates him, while the people who even bother notice him just think he's a creep. He's a bit like the original Lee/Ditko Peter Parker — a dude who's convinced people hate him because he's better than them, not because he's just the worst.
But Andrew doesn't know he's better than them; not yet. Spider-Man is very much a springboard for Chronicle — we really feel for acute beta-male Andrew at first (because the movie wants us to), but we soon find that, as he develops his telekinesis to a powerful degree and realizes his own potential, that he quickly becomes the bad guy. There's no Uncle Ben in his life to set him straight, so the film goes real dark, real fast.
It's amazing that Chronicle works at all, for how much it totally shouldn't.
Here's the problem with this particular subgenre: found footage movies, it turns out, are not actually believable. Let's go back to the one that surely opened the floodgates — Cloverfield, a movie in which a doofus with a video camera manage to photograph a Godzilla-esque attack on New York City with a stunning composition to rival that of most documentarians. In reality, this kind of footage would just end up being jerky cinematography and a lot of cursing — just like The Blair Witch Project, now that I think about it.
Even with that in mind, to say that Chronicle's found footage element tries believability is an understatement. It feels more like Trank and Landis are actively working to betray their very own conceit with the most stupid, blatantly contrived moments involving cameras, including having characters trade off the camera to show Andrew doing stuff, a love interest with her own camera offering the occasional reverse-shot position during select scenes and Andrew using telekinesis to grab a group of bystanders' cell phones to better record his climactic superhuman temper tantrum and give the film some different angles to work with. It's clear these dudes wanted to make a real movie, not a found footage movie.
The big highlight of Chronicle is the film's main trio, who crackle with chemistry. It actually feels like they're friends, and as such it's infectious when they're learning their powers and damn near tragic when the relationship falls apart. They're really what make the film work — if the viewer doesn't care about them, then she's not going to care when you get to the Act 3 throwdown. Part of it can be attributed to Landis' script, which makes sure that the other two guys remain sympathetic while Andrew falls from grace, while the actors themselves carry the rest of the way.
More impressively, Trank handles the action scenes surprisingly well for a found footage movie, thanks to his refusal to sacrifice clarity for faux-realism. Once shit gets real and people start flying around the city, cars get tossed around and bodies fly through buildings — all that stuff you expected to see back when Superman Returns came out but instead he had to resort to rescuing Parker Posey in a runaway car with a surprising amount of effort — the action actually excites, despite the fact that all the dodgy CGI signals a movie made on a paltry $15 million that works better than most movies made for 10 times that number. Trank's reportedly being tapped by Fox to handle the next Fantastic Four movie and, considering his handle on both character and action, he just might be the right guy for the job, considering how ramshackle-yet-effective Chronicle is paired with Fox's tendency to hide their wallets when it comes to superhero movies.
Chronicle was a box office success when it debuted back in February, but I'm not sure how it fared with the comic book crowd. Surely it was pretty easy to ignore, being a found footage superhero movie with no established IP to speak of, in a year with The Avengers and a Chris Nolan Batman movie. Don't let the format fool you — it's an enjoyable little gem in a landfill of a genre. Just, y'know, try not to smell it.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.