The “found footage” gimmick has been kicking around for awhile now, ever since being popularized by The Blair Witch Project more than a decade ago; used to boost the “reality” of a film, the style has been employed primarily in the horror genre (the Paranormal Activity films), but it’s also been successfully used in other elsewhere, including the school shooting drama Zero Day and the sci-fi romance Monsters.
Josh Trank’s Chronicle may feature the best use of found footage yet. With its premise of three highschoolers developing unnatural superpowers, the film displays the best cinematography you’re likely to encounter in one of these films, as it allows one of the characters to float the camera around using telekinesis.
Chronicle is unlikely positioned as a blockbuster. The budget is (relatively) low (one of the genre’s benefits for financiers), the filmmakers and cast largely unknown, and relatively little of the plot has been made known. But advance word has been strong, with an excellent trailer and a viral stunt that sent people-shaped objects flying over New York City.
The film, though, is set in Seattle. It begins with teenage outcast Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) turning on an outdated video camera and declaring that he will start filming everything. Lucky for us, the editors have cut that down to a manageable 83 minutes.
Andrew films his home life (alcoholic father, dying mother), his school life (tormented by bullies), and his social life, accompanying cousin Matt Garetty (Alex Russell) to a barn party. Here, we’re introduced to the film’s second cinematographer, Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), who films for her blog, and popular high school president nominee Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan).
Matt and Steve have found a large hole out in a field, and recruit Andrew to document it. Naturally, they venture inside. They find something…strange…and the camera goes black. The film continues with a new super hi-def camera; Andrew’s father asks him where he got the $500 for it, but the price seems just a little off.
More importantly, the three teens now have superpowers. Telekinesis, to be exact, which allows them to pull all kinds of neat pranks, and put on some great magic shows. Great power without great responsibility. Eventually, they hone the power, and discover they can do all sorts of things, including cause serious damage. Rules need to be set.
Chronicle boils down the superhero story to its bare essentials, and delivers a surprisingly deft origin tale that provides a nice comparison to its comic book roots. There’s a realism to the story – in how the characters use their powers, at least initially – which is greatly enhanced by the found footage gimmick, even if climatic scenes, featuring hordes of cell phones floating around the space needle, go to ridiculous lengths to explain the cinematography.
There seems to be a limit to how good these kinds of films can be (I still don’t think I’ve seen a great one), but first-time director Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of John) come awfully close to pulling it off. Chronicle is bound to play well with most audiences, and the door is left open for a sequel. At the very least, the filmmakers have come up with a great method for avoiding Cloverfield’s queasy-cam.