The biggest problem with Chronicle is its oppressive mediocrity. If the film was good, I would be able to compliment it, and describe how it succeeds both on the technical level and on the storytelling level. If it was trash, I would be able to tear into it for its failings and its poor execution. But, to my dismay, the movie on the whole is simply “adequate.” It does nothing very well, but nor does it fail in any particular area. It is a film that simply is, and it is a film you will watch, sort of enjoy, and then promptly forget as soon as you leave the theater.
Note that this review contains some spoilers, but if you’ve seen the trailer for this film you know exactly what happens already.
Chronicle is the story of Andrew, an unpopular kid in high school who starts filming his life as a way to capture video evidence of his father abusing him. Somehow this results in him going to a barn party with his cousin, Matt, and bringing the camera along. While at the party, Andrew, Matt, and another kid from school, the popular athlete and would-be school politician Steve, discover a hole in the middle of a field. They of course venture down into the hole, where they discover a plot device. This plot device gives them telekinesis, and, as you probably have guessed, they use their newfound powers to dick around and fly and pick up chicks and then the whole thing turns into Akira. There are subplots, such as the aforementioned parental abuse, and Matt wanting to pick up some chick who is also filming her entire life for no reason, but none of these distractions amount to anything, and the film promptly forgets about them once the climax begins.
On the technical side of things, Chronicle relies on the “found footage” trope, first brought to prominence by The Blair Witch Project and used more recently in Cloverfield and some other films I can’t be bothered to recall. The appeal of this method is twofold: it can create a sense of “realism,” or at least minimizes to some degree the artifice of the film; and, more importantly, it allows film makers with a small budget to work around minimal or sub-par special effects. The problems with this trope are likewise twofold: first, it often produces shaky camera shots and the cinematography is always terrible (since random people filming something with a camcorder are not going to care about shot composition, so why should the film makers?); and second, there reaches a point in every single film that uses this trick where there is simply no good reason for the characters to keep filming, but they have to keep filming or the whole thing falls apart.
Chronicle, to its credit, attempts to try to mitigate both of these down-sides, to middling success. The “cameraman” of the film is Andrew, and to my infinite surprise actually owns a tripod. Of course, most of the time he is not using the tripod, but it is nice to know that someone out there still owns such a device. Andrew also is blessed by the film gods in that he can actually hold a camera steady for minutes at a time, which automatically makes him a better cinematographer than anyone who worked on the Bourne movies. But the film does not rely solely on Andrew’s magical camera holding powers. It also relies on Andrew’s actual magical powers. You see, after the boys get telekinesis, Andrew starts to practice his concentration and control by holding the camera in the air behind him. This allows him to actually appear in the film, as opposed to just being a disembodied voice, and it allows the camera to pull back now and then to show the characters using more traditional angles and composition. It works, after a fashion, but the film still has no cinematography, and the idea of Andrew floating the camera around behind him quickly becomes absurd when no one notices that he’s doing it all the time.
The second problem, the fact that the characters keep filming even though logically there is no reason for them to do so, is a stickier wicket. The film attempts to explain this away by having Andrew become “addicted” to the camera, such that viewing the world through a lens is some kind of coping mechanism for him. But of course, that explanation can only stretch so thin. Why is he filming himself crying? Why is he filming himself beat up the local winos? (His street has a gang of old bums that accost him every day when he walks home.) And the whole thing utterly collapses under the weight of disbelief when Andrew, flying up to the top floor of the Seattle Space Needle, rips all of the cameras and phones out of the hands of the tourists, and assembles them around him in a floating circle. Why on earth would he do this? So that when Matt flies up to try to stop him, there are plenty of camera angles and good sound quality to make their banter more dramatic.
Concerning the rest of the technical aspects, the film has, as per usual for the “found footage” style, no cinematography, no deliberate editing, no interesting directorial decisions, and no music.
Moving on to story and characters, this is where the film is at its most mediocre. Let me give you some facts.
White boy #1 who is picked on at school.
White boy #2, cousin to #1, who is sort of normal and thinks of #1 as an annoying little brother.
Black boy, who is popular and cool and is erstwhile friends with white boy #2.
Plot device that gives all three boys superpowers.
White boy #1 starts abusing said powers.
All of those facts are revealed in the trailer for this film. They are not spoilers.
Okay, now that you have those facts, think of a plot that uses those facts. Don’t think about it too deep, don’t try to be creative. Think of the most obvious, lazy, and cliched plot you can imagine. Try not to take more than ten seconds.
You got your plot? Well then, congratulations, you have thought of the exact plot of Chronicle. No, I am not exaggerating. That cliche plot you have in your head, that’s the story of this movie, down to the last detail.
Now, this story is not inherently bad, but it is certainly not creative or original. And if you’re going to tell an obvious, lazy story, you would do well to tell it with style and skill. Unfortunately, Chronicle does not tell its story with style or skill, (unless you count the “found footage” trope a style), and its lack of excitement for its own subject matter coats the entire production in a fine veneer of “meh.”
The characters are likewise uninspired. Andrew is white boy #1. He gets picked on at school, his dad is abusive, his mom has some unidentified illness that keeps her bedridden and at death’s door. He films everything. You can see his character arc from three states away.
Matt is white boy #2. Matt is a strange character. He is not popular, but he is not an outcast like Andrew. He’s not geeky, but he’s constantly quoting Jung or Kant or some other famous-sounding person. I couldn’t tell you his actual social status at school, since we never see him at school, but at one point during a subplot he says that he tried to separate himself from everyone else in order to avoid the clique mentality of high school. He’s also kind of a jerk. He has no character arc. He’s pretty much a plot device to assist Andrew’s character.
Steve is the black boy. He is an athlete (but what sport he plays is never mentioned, or if it was I didn’t care enough to notice), and he is super popular. He is running for class [political office], and hopes to go into politics for reals after school. He’s friends with Matt, but who knows why, and he’s nice to Andrew, but who knows why. He also has no character arc, and you know exactly what happens.
There are minor characters and subplots. Andrew’s abusive dad is abusive, and is mean to the point of becoming a cartoon villain. There’s a girl who Matt likes, and there are two or three scenes where we see him awkwardly hit on her. She is also filming her entire life, ostensibly to post on her “video blog,” but really just so the film makers have a way to show Matt doing stuff without having Andrew around. Of these two characters, Andrew’s dad has a semblance of a purpose, but the girl has none, and the film doesn’t care enough to wrap up either subplot.
This is the part where I’m supposed to say, “I could go on, but…” And yet, I really can’t. There’s nothing more to say about the story. It hits the notes it’s supposed to hit, it shuffles the characters through the requisite plot points, it has a so-so climax, and then it ends. As I said at the beginning of this review, it does not fail in any particular field, but it does not excel in any way either. It is a textbook example of “decent.”
Should you see Chronicle? I guess, if you want. It’s nothing special, but it’s not a complete waste of your time and money. That’s about the best I can give it. See it, or don’t, who cares? The film makers certainly didn’t.