Found footage without finesse
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Feb. 3, 2012
Movies that purport to be constructed from found footage, in the manner of "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Devil Inside," usually do so to cloak a flimsy premise. That's not the issue with "Chronicle," in which a pretty good idea for a sci-fi thriller is undermined by hastiness - and by the pretense that it was mostly shot by one of its protagonists.
That amateur cameraman is Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a Seattle area high-schooler with big problems. He's bullied at school and at home, where he lives with an alcoholic dad and a critically ill mom. At the beginning, Andrew announces that he's going to videotape his life. That doesn't seem a very likely pastime for a guy who's regularly abused and humiliated, but "Chronicle" pretends to be mostly his footage (with a little help from surveillance cameras and a video-blogger classmate).
Andrew's closest thing to a friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who regularly brings conversations to a halt by invoking Plato, Jung or Schopenhauer. One night, Matt and Andrew attend a rave, where they encounter Matt's longtime crush (Ashley Hinshaw), later to serve as the movie's damsel in distress. The guys wander off with Matt's pal Steve (Michael B. Jordan), a senior-class superstar.
In a development any superhero-origin buff will recognize, the boys crawl into a sinkhole and find a weird, perhaps extraterrestrial, substance that alters them. They develop superpowers, and Andrew, weakest of the three, becomes the strongest. His telekinesis is, uh, killer.
The guys have some adolescent fun with their gifts, doing "Jackass"-style stunts and lifting girls' skirts from a distance. But Matt and Steve have read enough Spider-Man - if not Schopenhauer - to know that with great power comes some responsibility. Andrew doesn't concur. The movie only runs about 80 minutes, so it literally doesn't take long before his existential despair yields mayhem.
"Chronicle" was made for about $15 million, just a few rusty bolts by "Iron Man" standards, and screenwriter Max Landis (son of "Animal House's" John Landis) must have used a lot of that budget for effects. We see the kids manipulate inanimate objects and levitate to the point that they're soaring, Superman-style, in the clouds. Also, the special effects crew had to insert the Space Needle into a movie that was shot in South Africa.
A few more bucks (or a little more thought) for the script would have been a better investment than faking Seattle. The characters are introduced so quickly, and their personalities are so thin, that what happens to them has little weight. And the allegedly homemade visuals, while offering a few witty touches, distract from the story. "Chronicle" can't finesse the essential problem of the found-footage genre: When faced with a potentially lethal threat, nobody's first instinct is to hit "record."
Contains violence, profanity, sexual situations and teen drinking.