Remember Cloverfield? (If you haven’t seen it, rent it and watch it immediately. Unless you get queasy with handheld camera footage. Or are opposed to awesomeness.) That film was Godzilla remade in the new cinema verite style: found footage. It was shot to look like it had been captured on one camera, as events happened. There was not only a motivation for what the characters (and the monster) did, but also a motivation for there to be a camera looking at those events.
Now imagine a Cloverfield-style take on Spider-man. Except that Peter Parker is kind of a douche, and he has two friends bitten by that spider at the same time. And it’s not a spider. And it all takes place in Seattle. There you have it: Chronicle.
I knew I’d like the idea of a “realistic” take on three teenage boys suddenly gaining telekinetic powers. They start by playing little pranks on people, then learn how to fly. Then bad things start happening. But I was surprisingly pleased by the characterizations, particularly the “Peter Parker” character, Andrew (played by Dane DeHaan) and his cousin, the “Harry Osborn” character, Matt (played by Alex Russell). Their third fellow power junkie is Steve (played by Michael B. Jordan). Andrew is in a bad place at home, with a dying mother and an abusive father. It’s this situation (and, presumably, years of being bullied at school and in the neighborhood) that drives him to start documenting his life with a camcorder.
By and large, the found footage aspect works pretty well. There are a couple of moments where the filmmakers had to jump through a logical hoop or two to get a camera where they needed it (and a few that I still don’t know where the supposed camera came from) but by the time the trickier moments arrive, you’re deep into a splashy action sequence at the end. (One particular section involves a VW bug and the Space Needle. It’s the best bit of the movie.)
Two things make the camera work in this film notably different from other found footage films, like Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project. The film is not limited to the footage captured by Andrew’s camera. The film, quite cleverly, keeps us looking through his lens for the first twenty minutes or so before he crosses paths with Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), a perky vlogger with her own camera fetish. The moment when we switch from Andrew’s footage to Casey’s is disconcerting, but it turns out to work very well. Then, as the film progresses, we get more footage from more sources: random bystanders with cell phone cameras, B/W silent security footage, cameras attached to police cars and helicopters, etc.
The other difference is that, since Andrew is telekinetic (and really good at it) he soon learns how to make his camera float around him. This manages to get his character on screen way more than Hud in Cloverfield. It also gives the movie a dreamy, mildly spooky feel; when the camera is floating like this, it tends to sway this way and that, always focused on Andrew, often with him staring into it.
Is this film a slam-dunk classic? Far from it. The Steve character is mildly amusing, but disposable, as is the Casey character. (Michael Kelly does some nice work in a supporting role as Andrew’s dad.) And the ending, while fun to look at and expertly done, is somewhat predictable. (At least to anyone who’s seen Akira.) But if you like your sci-fi a little moodier, you might want to give Chronicle a look.