Chronicle does several things well. Yes, it’s about teens who discover they have amazing powers, and therefore, it should bore us to tears. But it spends a lot of time setting up the characters, making them and their world believable. In fact, it does so to the point where you think, for a while, that you may have stumbled into an indie movie about troubled teens.
Three high school kids come into contact with something that probably looks a lot like the nuclear reactor at Fukushima during the 2011 crisis. They come away from this encounter with strange powers. At first it’s all fun and games, but like the power that pesky ring gives the wearer in Tolkien’s story, it also brings corruption. What’s best about the movie’s central fact is that it’s never explained—no windy oratory from a cartload of scientists, no government researchers with star charts, no crotchety old guy who speculates about what might be happening to them and has just the device that might work if. . . . As the title indicates, Chronicle plays out like the straightforward account of what happens.
Alex Russell plays Matt, the popular guy who also quotes Schopenhauer, Jung, Plato, and casually uses words like hubris. Michael B. Jordan plays Steve, the future politician, who happens to be black and to be as popular as Matt. And Dane DeHaan plays Andrew, the moody outsider whose mother is dying and whose father takes out his frustration on him. The characters are written just enough off-center to make them realistic. The actors are uniformly good, but DeHaan is the standout, with all the wounded menace of a young DiCaprio.
Chronicle captures the special horror of growing up as the outsider in a tank filled with creatures whose greatest pleasure is to devour each other (i.e., high school). And yet it’s more than a movie about the bully who learns to respect and even admire the nerd. Or about the nerd who gains acceptance by his peers. It’s about how the righteous can be corrupted by power.
Partly because he wants to document his father’s abuse and partly because the camera helps to insulate him from the indifference and casual cruelty of the world he moves through, Andrew videotapes his life. And it’s his video chronicle that comprises most of the movie. This is the point-of-view trick that makes movies like Cloverfield and Skyline seem better than they are. But in those movies, you sit in the audience wondering half the time just how they’re going to arrange the action so that all it takes place in front of the character’s camera. And how do you show the main character if he’s always behind the camera instead of in front of it? Chronicle solves these problems the way I solve all my problems—through telekinesis. As outlandish as this sounds, it’s consistent with the central idea of the movie and it allows you to stop wondering how the camera could show every vital moment of the story.
I’m trying to figure out why the special effects in this movie are so—well—affecting. In themselves, they’re probably no more striking than those in another movie of this kind. Objects move by themselves, people and objects fly around. But somehow the home-movie aesthetic—as well as the ordinariness of the world depicted—makes them seem all the more striking, all the more real—one of the features that made Paranormal Activity so successful. There’s a scene, for instance, when two of our super-powered teens are sitting on top of a skyscraper, and I felt anxious for them in a way I never felt for a moment through ninety-plus minutes of Man on a Ledge.
It comes down to character.
It’s the “hero” part of superhero movies that make them fundamentally boring. But give those same powers to a three-dimensional character and you get much more than a soothing myth about the ultimate triumph of justice. Chronicle’s closest cousin is probably Brian DePalma’s Carrie, which also anchored its special effects in the gritty world of growing up in dysfunction. Both movies know that the greatest horrors don’t come from outer space or hell or even Wall Street. They lie hidden in the human heart. At one point, as their powers spin out of control, one of Chronicle’s character cries out, “We can’t just do things! We have to think first!”
Words for our time.
P.S. The Sleeper’s eyes were wide open throughout, and she even insisted on sitting through the credits.