As in Daniel Stamm's underrated horror, The Last Exorcism, writers Josh Trank and Max Landis quickly find an in-plot justification for the characters filming everything. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is desperately lonely and unpopular, but he's also being abused by his drunken father (Michael Kelly), and so he decides to start filming everything that goes on in his house, and his negligible social life.
The closest thing he has to a friend is his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), and it's during a session of chronicling his life that the two stumble into an underground cavern, along with über-popular Steve, (Michael B. Jordan) and are suddenly imbued with telekinetic powers. They react as any kid their age would, by staging Jackass-style stunts to test their new abilities for the camera, but there's always the chance that they're going to over-stretch their powers.
Films about super-powered young men are hardly in short supply, but Chronicle provides an interesting counter-point to another post-modern superhero movie, Kick-Ass. In that film, Dave Lizewski has all the willpower to go out in costume and save people, but none of the special abilities that keep superheroes from being killed or maimed. Chronicle explores what happens when three teenagers, who have no inclination towards super-heroism, gain those abilities.
This isn't to say that Andrew, Matt and Steve are stupid, only that they're realistically close to how teenage boys actually behave. The Kick-Ass brand of spandex-clad altruism doesn't ever seem to cross any one of the boys' minds. You could say that this makes them selfish, but not unlikeable. Indeed, the film succeeds as a slow-burning character piece, on the strength of the rapport between its leads.
It helps the very talented cast that the characters are so well drawn, too. DeHaan plays the social outcast very well, meta-textually acknowledging how his handheld camera potentially puts a barrier between filmmaker and subject, and expressing his comfort with that barrier. Russell plays Andrew's cousin as too-cool-for-the-room, eventually humbled from his initial position of spouting textbook philosophy to make himself appear mature to a girl he's crushing on.
Jordan’s role as Steve is particularly enjoyable, and his bond with Andrew engaging. The inter-personal relationships are largely what sets this film apart from so many other recent found-footage movies. Additionally, the film removes the difficulty of who is holding the camera altogether, by establishing that Andrew can pilot the camera around the action with his powers, rather than having to lug it around. This allows for some more technically adept shots than you might be used to seeing, in a found-footage feature.
Although it's all shot and executed very well, I missed the intimacy of the piece once it became epic towards the end of the film. The climax is plenty exciting, and very impressive indeed - how is it that the action scenes in a $15 million movie consistently out-class those seen in films that cost ten times as much, or films directed by alleged action maestros like Michael Bay? As great as Trank's direction is, so early on in his career, I don't think that he maintains the closeness to the characters, once he expands into downtown Seattle.
The only other criticism I would make is that Kelly's role as Andrew's abusive father is a little overdone. I feel that the film establishes Andrew well enough without the blatant stupidity of that character, in some scenes. Granted, his dad has an astonishing sense of entitlement and self-importance, but there are points where his continued ignorance to the changes in Andrew just becomes unbelievable.
Even if Chronicle were a terrible movie - and it isn’t - it should clearly put the final nail in the coffin of the long-suffering English language remake of Akira. Some of its key story beats, along with many of those from Brian de Palma's Carrie, are reinterpreted herein, and if I didn't want to see an inferior version of Akira, I sure as hell don't want to see a more expensive and even more inferior version of what Chronicle pulls off so well.
On the whole, Chronicle is a likeable, ambitious and ultimately impressive lo-fi take on the superhero origin story, and it proves to be a nice little surprise in the early days of 2012. It is, perhaps, the first film since Cloverfield that uses the now-stale found-footage format to its very best. It's more innovative than we could have expected from such a stagnated sub-genre, and there's very interesting work from all involved.