By Bill Wine
Call Chronicle an anti-superhero flick.
But the level of entertainment that this modestly budgeted but cleverly resourceful science fiction thriller delivers — cast with unknowns, offering a tidy 83-minute running time, and squarely in the “found footage” format — is almost heroic.
Three high-school-senior friends in suburban Seattle — Andrew, a bullied outcast with a dying mother and abusive father played by Dane DeHaan; his wannabe-philosopher cousin Matt, played by Alex Russell; and his popular future-politician classmate Steve, played by Michael B. Jordan — gain superhuman abilities as a result of a discovery they make.
It occurs in a strangely cavernous hole in the ground, below which is a crystal cave that they descend to the bottom of, where they find a strange crystal, apparently an extraterrestrial energy force that somehow imbues them with superhuman abilities.
And because one of them, Andrew, is nothing if not a documentarian, he records just about everything, which is his way of both validating and exploiting his outsider status. This of course includes their new gifts — telekinesis and flight.
Are these blessings or curses?
At first their newfound skills are fun to indulge and display, as their puckish pranks, spirited horseplay, and boys-gone-wild shenanigans make evident. But they keep their amazing secret from the rest of the world. In other words, innocence still rules, but corruption waits around the corner.
And because they apparently do not subscribe to Spider-Man’s superheroic reminder, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and even though they have agreed not to use their powers against humans, in anger, or in public — and, of course, because teen angst never sleeps — before long they find themselves abusing their uncanny powers in sinister and destructive ways, as mischief escalates into something much darker and more dangerous.
With Andrew’s newly acquired capabilities, the hostility and rage that he has bottled up for so long has found a way out if that is indeed what he wants. Let’s just hope he doesn’t snap.
Directed by debuting Josh Trank and scripted by Max Landis (the son of director John), based on a story by Trank and Landis, Chronicle chronicles the adventures of our trio of protagonists with a combination of Andrew’s camera’s point-of-view, a friend’s camera’s point-of-view, surveillance-camera footage, telephone-camera shots, and news feeds. Certainly there is an understandable emphasis on the special effects, but they’re handled with matter-of-factness and restraint — and are nonetheless expert and spectacular — and without skimping on character interaction or development.
Landis and Trank, leaving no stone unturned, are quick to answer each question or objection that pops into our minds about just how all this footage is actually being acquired. Instead of playing fast and loose with their structural gimmick — ah, the influence of YouTube — they follow through on its implications like seasoned pros.
What Chronicle shares with other offerings in the found footage sub-genre such as The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and Cloverfield is the borrowed verisimilitude to milk suspense and instill fear. What is different about it, though, is that this isn’t really a horror flick, but science fiction. And that it manages to not only reach for authenticity but to achieve it in disbelief-suspending splendor.
So we’ll levitate 3 stars out of 4 for the pleasant out-of-nowhere surprise, Chronicle, a stimulating combo plate of sci-fi, comedy, and action that, like its protagonists, lifts right off the ground.