Chronicle cost approximately 1/20th as much to make as last year's Green Lantern — and it looks way cooler. This movie about teenagers who get superpowers has some of the coolest depictions of superpowers we've seen in ages. Whether they're flying or tossing shit around, the teenagers in Chronicle always feel like they're really doing this.
That's the big achievement of Chronicle, really — the illusion that this is just someone's camcorder footage is not broken when people start doing things that defy the laws of physics. It all looks totally real. Spoilers ahead...
Chronicle is a pretty nifty film in general, but what really stands out is how well it makes the "found footage" style of film-making feel fresh. The whole thing feels seamless, and as the effects-heavy sequences get more and more dominant, the movie never loses its "you are there" feeling. Everybody involved with this film has obviously given a lot of thought to how to make a story of three teenagers developing telekinesis as un-fake as possible. (Although there are one or two "levitating ball" shots early on that look a bit CG, for sure.)
That goes into every part of the "super-powered origin story" format, from the matter-of-fact way the three teenagers stumble into getting their powers, to the fumbling, random way they learn to use them, to the casualness with which they start using their powers once they're good at them.
To the extent that any of us will ever know how to move things with our mind, this feels right. You're left with a visceral sense that this is how it would really be. Especially one or two bits gave me a chill — like one scene where two characters are arguing, and one of them just turns angrily and flies out the window, and it feels just as natural as walking out the door. There's no sense of "we spent a lot of money on this, let's show it in slow-mo."
So in Chronicle, the all-important viewpoint camera is mostly held by a teenage boy named Andrew, who's your standard weird misfit with an abusive dad and a sick mom. The closest thing Andrew has to a friend is his cousin Matt, who's somewhat more popular despite his dorky habit of quoting great philosophers. (Matt is the "intellectual" of the group.) The third kid who gets superpowers is Steve, the popular kid who's a shoo-in for Student Council President. Somehow, the three of them become a tight group of friends once they can move things with their minds.
Andrew starts carrying around a cheap camcorder because he wants to document his life, but also because he wants to have a barrier between him and everyone else. People talk a lot about how annoying it is that Andrew wants to film everything, and we also get to see him abused by his dad, hoodlums in his neighborhood, and bullies at school. Life basically blows for Andrew, and the camera is like a symbol of that fact. The early scenes of the film use some clever techniques, like cutting off scenes in the middle of people's sentences, to show how disconnected Andrew is.
Later, after the three kids get telekinetic powers, the camera becomes a symbol of something else — Andrew quickly figures out that he no longer needs to hold the camera in his hand, at least not when there are no witnesses around. He can levitate the camera with his mind, and get whatever camera angle he wants — this is used to great effect in a few scenes, as Andrew gets more creative and maybe weirder, too.
A few times during this movie, I found myself thinking to myself, "This is why found footage movies exist."
So yeah, the main characters in the film are well-worn archetypes. And the stuff that happens in the film won't be that much of a surprise to anyone who's seen a movie about superpowers before. (Or just the Star Trek episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before.") But on the plus side, the three leads are all perfectly cast, and they give really strong performances. In particular, Alex Russell, as Matt, manages to bring a lot of conviction to scenes where he tries to set limits for their powers, and he really sells his character's evolving relationship with the main character, Andrew. By the end of the movie, when Matt makes a surprising declaration, it's hard not to be moved.
The other reason why the superpowers in Chronicle feel more "real" than the ones in, say, Green Lantern, is that we see how getting superpowers doesn't change anything. Most depictions of superpowers in American culture focus on the relationship between "great power" and "great responsibility" — as if great power automatically makes you awesome, and you just have to act responsibly. But Chronicle shows that having great power doesn't really change who you are, or who your parents are, or how people see you. Great power doesn't change anything, unless you're willing to make changes.
Oh, and there's a Kick-Ass-esque scene late in the film where someone actually tries to put on a superhero costume, and it turns out about as well as it would in real life.
It's no accident that most of the really great superhero origin stories are about teenagers. The process of figuring out how your body is changing, the weirdness of having new abilities and traits, the feeling that your world is suddenly getting much bigger and more intense... it's a natural cluster of metaphors for coming of age.
So it's really the highest compliment you can give Chronicle, that this feels like the story of real kids, who come into their power and fuck up and act out and bond and fall apart. It's still early in 2012, but this film is a pretty decent contender to be among the year's ten best science fiction or fantasy films.