Chronicle is a teen-outcast science-fiction movie told in the low-budget, found-footage style of The Blair Witch Project. As soon as you hear that, you may think, ”No thanks, I’ve had enough of those films.” We all have, but Chronicle, I can say without hesitation, is the most original and excitingly executed wow-factor-meets-handheld-video feature since Blair Witch itself. It’s also a movie that rebuilds the power of special effects from the ground up.
Dane DeHaan, who’s like a runty Leonardo DiCaprio, plays the central character, a sullen Seattle misfit named Andrew Detmer, who has decided to turn his life into a video diary in order to take refuge from his dismal home, where his abusive father sits around and drinks and yells. It’s not much of a refuge — bullies knock Andrew’s camera around, and cheerleaders call him a creep — but then, in the middle of a high school rave party, he’s summoned by his cousin, the much smoother and sexier Matt (Alex Russell), and Matt’s friend, the super-confident class president Steve (Michael B. Jordan). They have found a hole in the ground that’s emitting weird electromagnetic burps. The three shimmy down into the hole, which turns out to be a cave, and there they have an encounter with some mysterious viny extraterrestrial crystal. It looks like they’re about to get scarfed by an alien, but instead, the film cuts to a crisp, clear sunny day, as the trio, unharmed, take turns hitting one another with a baseball and watching it spin, suspended, in the air. It turns out that all three have emerged from their close encounter with telekinetic powers. They can move objects with their minds, and anything that hits them bounces right off.
At first, they use their abilities for innocuous pranks, making a shopping cart zip around a convenience store, or dragging a car across a parking lot to freak out its owner. Right from the start, though, the director, Josh Trank (it’s his first feature), working from a script he co-wrote with Max Landis (son of director John Landis), uses the haphazardly shot video-cam mode to stage the film’s special effects with a disarmingly minimal this is really happening! casualness. Shot for a reported $15 million, Chronicle is so stripped down, so free of visual clutter, that we’re not even sure how the filmmaker got that car to move. A lot of things in this movie float: rocks, Pringles, human bodies, the camera itself. But the film’s secret weapon is that the effects, even when they’re achieved digitally, are made to look and feel analog, and they’re timed with a sinister finesse. Unlike, say, Cloverfield, where you always knew that you were watching a giant digital beastie shot with jitter-cam, Chronicle replaces the usual glossy fake digital seamlessness with a physicality that renders everything tangibly real.
That includes the jaw-dropping moment when the three dudes, who have learned to elevate themselves into the air and stay there, toss a football around in the clouds. The actors look like they’re actually up there, as if they’d been photographed while parachuting, and the fact that we can’t figure out how the director did it is part of the effect. (A jetliner slicing through their game is the ultimate ”Damn!” surreal touch.) We’re not just staring at another visually glib high-flying fantasy — we’re drawn, through the ingenuity of the staging, right into the middle of it.
The film also lures us into an emotionally riveting downward spiral, one that trumps the ”alienated” heroes of the X-Men series, as Andrew, the most telekinetically gifted of the three, begins to use his powers to vent his neurotic aggression, crafting acts of mental violence. When he runs a car off the road, it’s almost a whim, but then, there’s a brilliantly staged moment in which, lying on the floor of his room, he toys with a spider, lifting it up into the air and…well, suffice to say that Trank visualizes what happens next with an ominous poetry, so that the death of an insect reveals the soul of a murderer. One of the neatest things about Chronicle is the way its home-video scale hides a grandiose pop design. The movie, against all odds, becomes the darkly perverse version of a superhero origin story, fused with the nerd’s-revenge climax of Carrie (and even with a touch of King Kong). There’s no denying that the picture is derivative — it’s steeped in pop allusions — yet Trank’s staging is audacious. The effects keep lifting you higher, sometimes literally, as Trank makes inspired use of the Space Needle, and of looming surveillance-camera-eye views of the mayhem unfolding below. Based on Chronicle, it’s clear that Trank has the right stuff to move up to big-budget fantasy movies. If he wants to, that is. In a lot of ways, he has already beaten the studios at their game. A-