The world didn’t need another “found footage” science-fiction/horror film, and though Chronicle slips the label on a technicality—viewers see the footage as it’s being shot, not after it’s discovered—the Blair Witch concept has become a dominant form in the YouTube age, developing its own set of clichés and indulgences. Yet there’s an offhand magic to the way home video can handle big special effects, making Chronicle seem less like a movie than like the fantastical abruptly, artlessly colliding with the real world. Following three high-school boys who acquire telekinetic powers, Chronicle could be described as Cloverfield meets a subtext-free Carrie. The fusion proves remarkably effective, not least because kids who can move objects with their minds can document themselves via fluid, hands-free tracking shots. Mostly, though, the video concept brings supernatural phenomena down to an effectively human scale.
The camera in question belongs to Dane DeHaan, a squirrely young outcast in suburban Seattle who at first seeks to capture his father’s abuses on tape, but winds up taking the camera everywhere. When DeHaan, his cousin Alex Russell, and class-president-to-be Michael B. Jordan discover a strange hole in a forest clearing one night, they descend to the bottom and come upon a mysterious energy source that leaves them with special powers. At first, they have fun pulling pranks and dicking around, whether moving items around in a toy store or shifting a BMW to another spot. But as they grow stronger, their superheroic ability to reshape the world around them begins to outstrip their ability to handle it responsibly.
Director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of Blues Brothers director John Landis) don’t entirely solve the awkward contrivances of having to capture every moment on handheld video; in fact, an entire character is invented almost solely to provide a second camera and give DeHaan a little more screen time. But Chronicle gets considerable mileage out of teenagers clowning around on tape, and when the fun starts to curdle, the horror of its characters abusing their powers is handled with the same deadpan matter-of-factness. A more conventional treatment might have made the spectacle the star, but Chronicle becomes what Hancock wanted to be—a dark superhero story with firm footing in the everyday. Perhaps now the found-footage gimmick has been fully exploited; let us never speak of it again.