There’s a truly great movie hiding inside “Chronicle”, the newest entry into the found footage genre. And while “Chronicle” rises far above what last years mediocre “Apollo 18” could muster (and any of the “Paranormal Activity” sequels, for that matter), the ideas presented by the premise end up being slightly more interesting than the end result.
True, the storyline is nothing particularly original (think “Carrie” becomes a super-villain). But the characterization is spot on, especially for our main gateway to the action, Andrew. By hammering home Andrew’s depressing personal life, complete with abusive father and cancer-ridden mother, we are allowed to effectively share in his triumphs and failures, and a certain sympathetic respect for him is gained. His two friends, Steve and Matt, are there to pull him into the main plot, meaning what happens after cannot really be blamed on him given the circumstances. All in all, I was satisfied with the main character arcs and was impressed with the way that Andrew’s psyche spiraled down in a predictable yet entirely realistic way.
The irony is that it’s almost impossible for me to determine whether using the handheld camera technique adds to the film, or detracts from it. In truth, it’s a little bit of both. At times, it can be completely immersive while also allowing the filmmakers to make the most of the special effects budget (one of the aspects these types of films usually do well). There are handful of very powerful images and sequences that almost make me forget about the obvious way they made boys appear to fly. They were able to use relatively unknown actors to use as audience stand-ins in a way that makes sense. There are many times when the first person view offers us an exhilarating glimpse into impactful events, especially when the camera acts as an audience surrogate for Andrew’s emotional state. Not since “Cloverfield” have I felt as part of the moment, and when it works, it is one of the best uses of the medium I’ve seen.
Sadly, for every one of these moments, there are times where the found footage route makes little sense. A number of contrived and obvious strategies are used to give different camera angles, or to excuse the presence of a camera at all. Some of these are innocent enough, but other times are so blatant as to hurt the effectiveness of the rest of the film. From using other characters with a camera of their own to show scenes in the standard reverse angle formula, to using security cameras or random phones of passersby, it becomes obvious the director was stretching for ways to not fall back on the same trick of “Andrew makes the camera pull back to a wide shot” and still give us a more traditional viewpoint. In the end, the whole deal feels rather pointless, as the effort wasn’t even made to present things as “found footage” at all. Sort of strange for a film called “Chronicle”, don’t you think?
The setting of Seattle is done effectively. Even knowing most of the movie was not shot here, enough scenes present recognizable images of the city and its surroundings that I can’t imagine it wouldn’t be believable to the vast majority of audiences. It’s fun seeing the Space Needle become the setting for the climactic scenes, and I have to give credit for a movie not presenting Seattle as the dreary, rain soaked venue of, say, AMC’s “The Killing”.
I’d have to give “Chronicle” a strong recommendation to those who know going in that they enjoy these types of movies. It pulls off the super-villain origin story very effectively, allowing us to care about the characters while still fearing their powers (and the inevitable abuse of said powers). A strong sense of dread covers most of the film, and whether that is a good thing is probably a matter of taste. The great characterization of Andrew makes this a worthwhile view, but that doesn’t exactly excuse the film’s faults. The flimsy way that the genre’s conventions are clung to, as well as the somewhat unsucessful climax, keep “Chronicle” from greatness. But it’s definitely still worth a look.