When young artists and filmmakers are first starting out, particularly those who want to work in special effects, you tend to get a few who will obsess about equipment and software packages, having gotten the idea that they need top-of-the-line tools to produce really impressive, feature quality work. And as we've seen proven time and time again, it's not the sophistication of the technology that matters, but how you use it. Take the case of "Chronicle," a science-fiction movie presented in the found footage style. It was made on a measly $15 million budget, stars no actors of note, and none of the movie's many, many special effects are particularly impressive by themselves. However, the way they're incorporated into the film, and the way they're used to further the storytelling helps to make "Chronicle" one of the most visually impressive science-fiction films I've seen in a while.
The premise is deceptively simple. Three Seattle area high school seniors, troubled Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and popular quarterback Steve (Michael B. Jordan), discover a hole in the ground in the nearby woods. They explore the cavernous interior, have an encounter with a mysterious pulsating object, and emerge with telekinetic powers, the ability to move things by will alone. At first they use the new abilities as you'd expect high school kids would, to pull harmless pranks and to one-up each other with various stunts. But as they find new ways to exploit their new powers and as they keep getting stronger, their behavior gets riskier. Andrew, our cameraman, is especially keen on finding ways to use his powers to help improve his miserable home and school life. He's bullied at school, his mother (Bo Petersen) is dying from cancer, and his alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) takes out his frustrations on Andrew.
Found footage films have certain limitations, and one of "Chronicle's" best tricks is that Andrew learns how to use his telekinesis to operate his camera, so it can capture the action from all sorts of different angles and Andrew can frequently be in the frame. On one level, you know it's really just a separate camera operator, but in the context of the movie, the filmmakers create the wonderful image of Andrew's camera hovering beside him or above him, following wherever he goes like a faithful dog. You only see the visual effect of the levitating camera once or twice, but it's enough to impart the mental image of one existing in every subsequent scene. It's an extremely clever narrative trick, and gives you a good idea of the director Josh Trank' s inventiveness. He manages to pull off some huge, amazing set-pieces with very limited means. Some of the effects, particularly the CGI animation, is pretty rough, but it's used so well that the imperfections have negligible impact.
What impressed me more than the effects, though, was the script by Max Landis, based on a story by Landis and Trank. At first the main characters seem like such tropes - the bullied loser, the pseudo-intellectual, and the most popular kid in school. And then you get to see the relationships among them develop, and the way they behave and interact is often painfully genuine. It's easy to get invested in the boys' friendships. "Chronicle" is an action picture, but it's a character study first and foremost. At the risk of giving too much away, the film I think it's closest to spiritually is Brian DePalma's "Carrie," rather than the more superficially similar "Akira." The writing also does a great job of incorporating the found footage conceit. The camera is not only acknowledged in the film repeatedly, but becomes a point of contention in several scenes, and Andrew's insistence on bringing it everywhere is a signal of his mental distress.
"Chronicle" doesn't follow the strict rules of found footage, being stitched together from the product of several different cameras, including video from Matt's blogger love interest Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) and various surveillance cameras. To the filmmakers' credit, they're far more committed to the concept than most of traditional found footage films I've seen. When the continuous filming gets particularly far-fetched, they'll always have a moment or two to acknowledge or explain how we're seeing the shots that we're seeing. It keeps finding so many ways to circumvent or overcome the limitations, that on a technical level alone this is easily the best found footage film I've ever seen. Add the great use of effects, the surprisingly strong story, and a couple of solid performances, and "Chronicle" is a downright impressive movie, found footage or otherwise.