'Chronicle' is shackled when it should soar
Orson Welles would be both a happy and sad man today.
He would be happy to witness the box-office proliferation of his legendary "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast of 1938, by which he sent a nation into panic over a faux alien invasion.
Throughout the years since, the medium of film has been slow to use this format, the most infamous example being 1980's "Cannibal Holocaust," in which a group of filmmakers pretend to find a lost tribe in the wild. It was resurrected with great effect in 1999, when "The Blair Witch Project" used "found footage" of a group of young filmmakers lost in the Maryland woods to scare the bejesus out of a Sundance Film Festival crowd, and subsequently the nation in wide release.
Since then, there have been countless attempts at the found-footage style of filmmaking, some modestly successful (Norway's "Troll Hunter," Spain's "Rec," "Cloverfield," "Paranormal Activity"), but most have landed with a thud ("The Poughkeepsie Tapes," "The Devil Inside," "The Zombie Diaries").
The central problem with films shot in this style is that it's hard to establish and maintain a level of realism throughout. Many times, it's the performances that stop found-footage flicks dead in their tracks. In the case of the forgettably titled "Chronicle," it's the gimmick itself that not only stalls the flick, but actually becomes a frustrating distraction.
"Chronicle" is a what is commonly described in superhero films as an "origin story." A trio of high schoolers - introverted Andrew (played by Dane DeHaan), popular jock Steve (played by Michael B. Jordan), and introspective Alex (played by Matt Garetty) - stumbles across a cave with a glowing, pulsating object within. Their obvious inclination is to touch it, which imbues them each with supernatural powers.
The film documents their slow nurturing of these gifts/curses and contains some truly inspired setups as they enjoy the power of levitation, mind control and various other tricks. There's an above-the-clouds football game that is exhilarating and inventive enough to make Criss Angel weep magic tears.
The prevailing issue with "Chronicle" is that it's set up as told from Andrew's perspective, culled from his constant filming of his life's non-events. This would be fine if we were to merely follow his transformation. but we are given insights on all three, which requires narrative tricks that introduce other camera-toting characters, security cams, random cell-phone video, news footage and other leaps of logic that repeatedly take us out of the main story.
When we should be asking "How'd they do that?" we're asking "How'd they film that?"
The cast members' performances sustain believability, but not one ever breaks out to establish himself as a standout. Each acts like a slightly older actor would behave playing a teenager, and there is nothing wrong with that.
There is much to admire in "Chronicle," as it's a keen riff on how ordinary teens would behave given superhuman abilities. Unlike, say, Peter Parker, they don't set out to rid the world of crime and injustice. Instead, they use their powers to mess with customers at the local Walmart and peek up girls' skirts (at times, the film plays like a more serious version of "Zapped!").
But by clinging to the ridiculous trope of handheld video, "Chronicle" is shackled when it should soar. It certainly does a better job than most with this style of filmmaking, but it still has a long way to go before effectively convincing audiences that what we are witnessing is in any way real.