Movie review by Greg Carlson
We are less than two months into the new year and “Chronicle” isn’t even the first movie to feature the gimmick suggesting that its entire story was compiled from found material shot by characters on personal camcorders and supplemented by news footage and security tapes. That dubious distinction belongs to “The Devil Inside,” a failed rehash of every cliché of the exorcism genre that feels plagiarized from first frame to last. In “Chronicle,” director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis, working from a story they co-wrote, angle for the superhero/science fiction action thriller instead, and their movie operates like a mashup of the “X-Men” series and “Cloverfield.”
Although the ideological origins of the phony documentary technique date back at least as far as “Cannibal Holocaust” in 1980, the contemporary popularity of the “recovered footage” genre/style owes nearly everything to “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999, which collected more than a quarter of a billon dollars on a final budget of less than one million. No matter how well constructed (and who supposedly edits these things into tidy feature-length entertainments anyway?), the home movie approach carries with it the constant threat of irritation and annoyance at the deliberately jittery handheld compositions and the artifice of the confessional and direct camera address.
Bullied Seattle teen Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) religiously archives the events of his life with his prized video camera, from the regular abuse of his alcoholic father to the painful decline of his cancer-stricken mother. Along with his better-adjusted cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and the popular quarterback Steve (Michael B. Jordan), Andrew attends a late night party where the trio acquires supernatural abilities after coming into contact with a crystalline substance deep inside a mysterious hole in the ground. Learning to control their telekinetic powers, the boys triangulate into id (Andrew’s unchecked wish fulfillment), ego (Steve’s calm and more measured skill development) and superego (Matt’s moral centeredness and sense of conscience).
While “Chronicle” fails to overcome its superficial philosophizing – Nietzsche’s name is perhaps deliberately unspoken even though several other thinkers are referenced – the impressive deployment of visual effects juices the action with a handful of genuinely stimulating scenes. As the young men teach themselves to fly, the ever-present camera journeys skyward with them, presenting a bird’s eye view of freedom in the clouds as good as anything in films with much bigger budgets. Most of the depictions of mind over matter succeed precisely because they seem exactly like the sort of stunts teenagers with newfound gifts would attempt.
Most disappointingly, “Chronicle” adheres strictly to a male point of view, miserably failing the Bechdel Test even though one promising female character played by Ashley Hinshaw shares Andrew’s penchant for near non-stop personal video recording. Initially, Hinshaw’s Casey appears to be headed toward a position as a voice of reason, but the script rapidly pigeonholes her as a passive love interest for Matt, and she essentially fades from prominent view. By the last act, Andrew’s supervillain act backs “Chronicle” into a familiar corner, and the story has nowhere to go but down.