Taken at face value, Chronicle has all the ingredients of test-marketed, lowest common denominator film-making. Like Push, I Am Number Four, and Jumper before it, Chronicle gives young and attractive men telekinetic powers -- the perfect superhero ability for cheap, boring special effects. It combines that with the ever-popular found-footage filming technique, the best way to get audiences excited with minimal effort. By all accounts this recipe should result in the same plain, unfulfilling smoke and mirrors schlock that robs curious audiences over and over, and yet, Chronicle manages to defy all expectations.
The story begins with Andrew, a meek high school student who, aside from a new camera and his friendly cousin Matt, has a generally miserable existence. A target for bullies at school and a victim of an abusive father at home, Andrew finds solace behind the lens of his camera. Found-footage tales always build a contrivance around the cameraman, but Chronicle is one of the few where that contrivance feels genuine and earned.
Andrew and Matt meet up with the charismatic Steve, and the three stumble upon a mysterious hole in the ground. The hole eventually leads into an underground cave that holds...something. It's not really important, other than giving the trio nosebleeds and, shortly after, telekinetic abilities.
It's at this point that the film comes into its own, as the three practice their newfound powers and become close friends. At last Andrew has something positive in his life, but the camera never leaves his side. He quickly becomes the most talented of the three, capable of fine manipulation of objects. Steve is the most experimental, introducing them to the more exciting and powerful aspects of their powers. Meanwhile, Matt lags behind, but his humbling slow start makes him the conscience of the group.
The experimentation brings the group closer and leads to some of the most exciting and fun scenes in the film. Where found-footage films tend to hold back and rely on the hand-held camera to hide the action, Chronicle never holds back. One particular scene involving a football and an airplane is both breathtaking and heart-pounding at once.
In a clever touch, the camera's ability to capture the action improves with the trio's ever-growing power. Where the film is initially limited by the conventions of the genre, Andrew's ability to fly the camera around with his mind gives the cinematography some much needed freedom while remaining believable. As the plot thickens, the cinematography becomes even more creative. There is a satisfying parallel between the developing powers of the characters and the evolution of the camerawork. Chronicle does not take its name lightly.
Of course, it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt, and once things start to go sour, the film takes a turn for the bleak. Chronicle loses some of its heart in the final act but makes up for it by taking the super-powered concept to its logical extreme. For a PG-13 film, it does not pull any punches.
While entertaining and exciting from beginning to end, Chronicle is not without faults. While one of the film's greatest strengths is in the characterization of growing teens, some dialogue drifts into ham-fisted territory. It's particularly troublesome in the introduction of Matt's character, whose snobbish spouting of basic Philosophy terms not only makes him the least interesting of the three characters, but seems like a half-assed attempt at thematic foreshadowing. The writers descend into particularly ironic and groan-inducing territory when Matt tries to explain the term "hubris." Thankfully, these moments are brief and relatively easy to look past.
What's a little less easy to ignore is the convenient manner in which events play out throughout the film. Without getting into spoilers, the individual character arcs are a bit too predictable. With so many surprises in the moment-to-moment events, it's unfortunate that Chronicle plays it safe with the overall outcome.
Regardless of those flaws, Chronicle is still a huge surprise. It defies almost all expectations of found-footage films while embracing and benefiting from the conventions of the style. More importantly, in its bizarre sub-genre of telekinetic superhero origin stories, Chronicle is perhaps the only one with the heart and soul to actually make it work.