Chronicle is an astonishing achievement, as enigmatic as its title, and absolutely razor-sharp entertainment. First-time director Josh Trank combines intricate handheld live-action camerawork with CGI wizardry to stunning, if often baffling effect. This found footage thriller rises above the genre dreck like Apollo 18, and offers a distinctive visual perspective that confirms that there's art left in the genre after all.
The story of Chronicle is similar to the X Files episode ‘Rush’ where a school kid finds a cave that gives him superpowers, except it doesn’t have the gauche allegorical monochrome of the show. In Chronicle the kid is Andrew (Dane DeHaan), whose dreary life consists of a drunkard dad, a sick mom and constant humiliation from society. His cousin Matt (Alex Russel) sometimes visits him out of pity. Andrew’s only friend is his video camera which he uses to record everything that goes on in his life. Things take a turn when Andrew accompanies his cousin and his classmate Steve (Michael B Jordan) to investigate a mysterious underground cave in the woods, where they discover otherworldly crystals and develop telekinetic superpowers. As any human adolescent would do, they use their powers for mischief and before you know it the film turns into a wild mirror image of X-Men.
Director Trank’s imagination and vision is terrific - he immediately eliminates the contrivance of the POV camera and effortlessly balances all kinds of aesthetics like dark surrealism and compositional thingamajig. His work recalls Matt Reeves’ in Cloverfield but there's pizzazz in what Trank attempts. Chronicle arrives a full 12 years after The Blair Witch Project which put found footage on the commercial cinema map and the genre has since been littered with all kinds of tripe. Yet Chronicle, thanks to its optical and creative fertility manages to rub shoulders with the genre’s best offerings like Rec and Monsters. Trank uses every inch of every frame to fill scenes with exciting tidbits, mixing natural light with colorful characters and barn-burning action to deliver a truly unforgettable experience. Some of the visual effects look like big money Michael Bay sequences, yet have been achieved with an astounding one-tenth of the budget.
But it’s not just all eye candy razzle-dazzle, because Chronicle does a fantastic job of putting us inside the heads of socially rejected teenagers who acquire powers to destroy lives – it is astonishing to realize that such a painfully clichéd theme can be thrillingly provocative if done right. It is possible that this film could’ve worked without the found footage gimmick and shot naturally, but the apparent realism of the characters and their existential rumination would’ve taken a beating.
Chronicle cleverly merges handheld action and CGI with quirky storytelling, stylish lensing and assured performances. The result is an extremely inventive film, a special kind of visual ecstasy. I’m tempted to find comparisons to other more electrifying films, but the simple truth is that there’s nothing out there that's anything like this.
(First published in Mid Day)