I'd heard a lot about this movie when it hit theaters, but never got to see it. Now I just caught Chronicle on DVD, and have to say I was very impressed. Superpowers have been around for so long that it's hard to believe someone can find a fresh angle, but this movie did.
The plot is deceptively familiar. Three high school kids - a loner with an abusive father, a popular candidate for class president, and a girl-crushing slacker - stumble across a mysterious object in an underground cave. The object gives them telekinesis which the trio begin exploiting in different ways until one of them crosses the line. In the end, they're forced to grapple with the consequences of their actions and how to use the god-like power they've been given.
One little caveat about the object that gives them their powers: forget about it. I spent the whole movie waiting for some explanation for the glowing, crystalline thing underground, and ended up disappointed. It's never stated what it was - Alien spaceship? Government experiment gone rogue? Prehistoric creature? - and I eventually realized the point was that it didn't matter. To dwell on the source of their powers is to divert attention from the powers themselves, which is the real key to the movie.
Now let's talk about the powers. The difference is the execution. In every superhero story, getting new powers is a life-changing event. After the radioactive spider bite or explosion or experimental serum, the person sits around, asking the question, "What should I do with these new abilities? Should I fight for good or evil?" Chronicle takes a surprising and more logical approach: the main characters don't do anything with their new powers. They just go on with their lives; running for president, asking the girl out, going to the school talent show, while basically going, "Hey, cool, I can move stuff with my mind." Apparently, the inspiration for the movie was YouTube prank videos, and much of Chronicle involves the characters playing tricks with their telekinesis. They move a woman's car out of its parking space. One of them frightens a little girl by making a teddy bear lunge at her. Because of this, the characters come off as real jerks, but also realistic. I mean, sure they could fight crime with superpowers, but wouldn't teenage boys be more likely to flip up girl's skirts?
The characters evolve in surprising ways with shades of gray. They aren't the square-jawed Peter Parker or Clar Kent with hearts of gold. All of them have a good side and a dark side. I don't want to spoil anything, but I will say I never lost sympathy when one of them became an outright villain. His path to the dark side felt like a natural evolution, but he also didn't feel like Dr. Doom in Fantastic Four, where you can see that he's evil from the moment he walks on screen.
Chronicle takes the "found footage" concept in new directions. Early on, the main character starts using his powers to make the camera float around him, so we avoid the nausea-inducing "shaky-cam" of most found footage movies. Later, we cut to various cameras such as surveillance footage, news reports, and even cell phone cameras. This gives the movie a broader view than just one point of view throughout.
It's not without flaws, of course. The story eventually falls into the cliched "battle across the city," which I didn't find as engaging as it could have been. Two guys throwing each other through buildings is just too familiar. I also felt towards the middle that it wandered a bit, and that the "power corrupts" moral has been done before. And I admit, because of the low budget, I would have liked the movie to go bigger. Maybe in the sequel.
Overall, I'd say Chronicle is a refreshing take on both the found footage and superhero genres. It's not going to compete against Avengers or The Dark Knight, but it does show there's more to superpowers than tights and explosions. That's something that comic book readers are well aware of, but movie audiences have rarely seen before.
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[Image Source: teaser-trailer.com]