As the calendar flips away from January, the hope is that the state of films can only go up, as we leave what is traditionally the biggest dumping month for films as studios aim their sights on pushing films for awards attention. Kicking February off is Harry Potter having problems with ghosts in The Woman in Black and Chronicle, a small science fiction picture that has a DIY look but does more with its $15 million dollar budget than so many tent pole films with ten times the cash. I’ll leave Radcliff’s attempt at shedding his Hogwarts’ image to others and concentrate on the latter project.
The story is simple but to the point. Three high school seniors (Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan) discover something out in the woods and are imbued with superhuman abilities. This isn’t Spider-Man or any of its ilk however. The majority of the film sees the trio figuring out what they can do with their new abilities and dealing with their newfound power in different ways, based on their underlying personalities. Two of them handle things rather well while the third has a lot of anger and pain buried not so deep that is sure to find its way out.
There is a small Heroes vibe, and the special effects are handled quite well, giving off shades of District 9, only without the giant alien prawns (though this too was filmed in South Africa). As a science fiction fan, I was happy to see a concept, though not so new, that was blended well with a pretty realistic portrayal of high school life. There are a few issues with kids looking beyond their characters’ ages (though only one side character is old enough to call Luke Perry-esque shenanigans on) but the raw emotions and difficulty in seeing the big picture capture what it’s like to feel young and invulnerable. And given their powers, these kids have more reason than most to feel like they can do almost anything.
That’s not to say the film isn’t without problems. First and foremost is the need to use a first person perspective, hand-held (i.e. shaky) camera. Think Diary of the Dead, think The Blair Witch Project, think Cloverfield. Hmm, all horror movies. I’m not sure if I want to see this gimmick applied to a romantic comedy or not … but I digress.
The movie begins with Andrew (DeHaan) propping up a video camera and telling his alcoholic father he’s going to film everything. Andrew then has to explain to the next few characters we meet that it’s what he wants to do, and the audience is subjected to epileptic shots for the first ten or twenty minutes. Once the boys’ powers come into play, a conceit is given as for smoother camera work; although every frame of the film is shown directly via the perspective of looking through a camera lens and rather than a diary of something that happened previously. The film simply shows us what’s occurring at the time, not via rewound footage.
This narrative device has its benefits in horror, putting the audience right into the fray. It even has merit in smaller independent films, creating a more intimate connection between the characters and those watching the movie. However, forcing it into every shot of this picture is more a sign of being obsessed with the gimmick than understanding how it can benefit the story. And when boiling the pros vs. cons down in this case, the only reason to use it is to make for more logical gaps in time, as we keep jumping forward to see a longer progression of the boys’ exploration of their powers without extending actual running time (83 minutes).
There’s also some issue with the manner in which everything is resolved. Most of the picture is a decently accurate portrayal of high school seniors being given powers they could only dream of. The final conflict is a bit more of a smash ‘n grab. It’s fun to watch the chaos all over what’s supposed to be downtown Seattle (the Space Needle is not immune to the destruction either), but the shift in tone seems more like the ending a five year-old would invent with Lego than how the story builds up until that point.
With all that said, it’s with a grain of salt that I give Chronicle an extra bump in the grading department because of the project’s ambition and my appreciation of sci-fi getting a slightly new look on the big screen; without all the hoopla that would come attached to some huge budget, star-studded affair (how did Hancock turn out? Exactly.). Due to the slight dichotomy between the build-up and the finale, it’s possible that you’ll like one section and not the other, but be able to balance the effort in your mind favorably overall. Also, there’s an indie feel to the project that may or may not appeal to some viewers but if you’re a fan of science fiction, there’s enough here to warrant checking out the film and the effects are good enough to be seen on the big screen but they’ll also play out just fine on your 103″ OLED TV.
Chronicle hits theaters on February 3, 2012 and is rated PG-13 for intense action and violence, thematic material, some language, sexual content and teen drinking.