Movies: Cinema Verite meets superhero drama in "Chronicle"

  It’s probably not necessary to say, but real life rarely resembles the movies. People aren’t as good-looking, conversations are rarely witty or easy and alien objects never bestow superpowers on unsuspecting kids.

If it ever did, however, the results would probably look a lot like the movie Chronicle.

The latest entry in the “found footage” genre, Chronicle begins as high school senior Andrew (Dane DeHaan) shoots the first frames of a sort of autobiographical documentary. The moments he captures on film—starting with casual bullying at school, then a solitary lunch in the bleachers, followed by harassment by the local thugs after class—paint a portrait of a kid on the fringes of high school society (a position that isn’t improved by toting around a clunky, old-fashioned video camera). His home life is not much rosier, as he is caught between an abusive, alcoholic father and a gravely ill mother.

Andrew’s only real social contact is with his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), but that seems more an obligation than a friendship. Matt clearly feels Andrew needs to step up his game, so he urges him to attend the big senior class party—sans camera—and try to have some fun.

Naturally, Andrew ignores this suggestion and, as a result, narrowly avoids being beaten by a jealous boyfriend. Just when it looks like the night will be a total bust, however, he and his camera are called into service to document a strange “something” found in the woods by Matt and the popular, soon-to-be class president Steve (the charismatic Michael B. Jordan).

What the boys have discovered is a crater, a sort of tunnel burrowing into the earth. Strange sounds emit from the mouth of the cavern, its walls like molten rock that had hardened, but for some reason this serves as an invitation to explore rather than a clue to run as fast as they can in the opposite direction. At the other end of the tunnel lies a mysterious object, but just as the viewer catches sight of it, the camera goes black.

Cut to an unspecified time later. The boys are in a backyard tossing a ball around, so it is safe to presume that they’ve all made it out alive despite their reckless curiosity. However, as they each take turns throwing things at each other they reveal their newfound power to control objects with their minds.

The boys become inseparable, documenting their developing skills with telekinesis on Andrew’s new camera and spurring each other on to try ever more daring stunts, as teenage boys will do. They vow to keep their nascent powers a secret (lest the men in black suits come to take them away for observation), but their experiments soon begin to flirt with public exposure.

It is here that the movie’s format brings a fresh perspective to the average-guy-turned-superhero storyline, as viewers start to feel like co-conspirators. The things Andrew, Matt and Steve choose to do with their new abilities smack of the truth—what teen boy could resist animating a stuffed bear to scare the bejesus out of a little kid?—as does their sense of wonder and camaraderie. There is a real sense that, should an unidentified object bestow powers on some kids tomorrow, this is exactly how they would behave. There is never any talk of battling evil, stopping global warming or even attempting world peace. These kids are every bit as narcissistic and self-centered as real high schoolers, and it is curiously refreshing.

The style begins to falter, however, when the boys start to experience real consequences to their actions. As people start getting hurt and Matt tries to impose rules on the use of their powers, Andrew grows ever more erratic. Oddly, though he was an open book at the beginning of the film, his motivations become much more murky and inexplicable toward the climax, despite a few confessional-style vignettes that are meant to offer insight into his warped mindset.

There are attempts made to fill gaps in the story by editing in perspective from other cameras, but for the most part, the audience is left to piece the story behind the story together on their own. Details from Andrew’s mother’s illness to the origin of the extraterrestrial object are left unexplored, and the characters’ relationships outside their circle are hazy and indistinct.

Although the interaction between the actors maintains a highly realistic feel throughout the movie, the same cannot be said for the effects. It’s clear that many stunts were aided by harnesses and cables, to the extent that the mind’s eye can easily recreate what
’s been digitally removed. This only gets more pronounced as the FX becomes grander in scale, to the point that the climactic battle on the streets of Seattle seem as false as Andrew’s promises to follow Matt’s self-imposed rules.

What begins as a promising character study of what happens after a life-changing event soon devolves into a low-budget actioner with B-movie effects and an ending that simply feels hollow. Chronicle is far from the worst movie of its type, but, much like its three central characters, there is a definite failure to live up to its potential.

Chronicle is now playing in theaters everywhere.

For more information, visit the film’s official Facebook site.

Published on SoCal.com

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