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'Chronicle' Is A Big Upgrade From Usual Low-Budget Thrillers

'Chronicle' Is A Big Upgrade From Usual Low-Budget Thrillers
2/3/2012 4:44 PM ET

Even if the third act isn't nearly as convincing as the first two, "Chronicle" is an ingenious little thriller that ends up being the Rolls Royce of "found footage" films. With a clever nod to the "Star Wars" mythology and a never-ending array of slick camera tricks, there is plenty to like about "Chronicle," a movie that gleefully combines horror and sci-fi elements with a story actually worth telling. If you were expecting the run-of-the-mill horror-thriller, you might be shocked at how much skill and thought went into the making of "Chronicle."

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) begins "Chronicle" as your typical high school outsider, a geeky loner who just looks like he has to know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of a swirly. Not only does he lack an ability to understand high school politics, his general hostility has helped him erect a rigid wall around himself, making him that much more isolated. In defense of himself, Andrew's best idea is to start recording everything on camera so he can document the cruel world around him. While this helps show the incredible amount of hatred he has to put up with on a daily basis, it does little to help him assimilate into high school parties, and most people cast him off as even creepier than before.

The only person he allows to break his protective wall is Matt (Alex Russell), a well-meaning cousin who is supportive of Andrew but also burdened by being his only social outlet. Though Matt is a nice guy, he'd rather not walk into school at the same time as Andrew. Even picked on at home by a raging alcoholic father, who is grieving the likely loss of Andrew's gravely ill mother, Andrew seems like a sad case that is destined to not end well.

But all that changes one night when Andrew and Matt discover a secret that forever alters their lives. Along with the charismatic Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the group stumbles upon a deep hole in the ground that takes them through a mysterious tunnel that burrows deep into the Earth. The large crystal-like object they find is difficult to describe even for an adamant sci-fi enthusiast, but it scares the wits out of them when it rumbles to life and soon they find that they are no longer like their fellow classmates.

Though they have no idea how (their best guess is "radiation"), all three seem to have developed the ability to move objects with their minds. Even if spontaneous development of telekinesis sounds more than a bit ridiculous, director Josh Trank uses wise restraint in the early scenes following the incident and the screenplay remains committed to developing our heroes. It doesn't hurt that Trank and company have a stack of aces up their sleeves when it comes to camera tricks, many of which are more impressive than anything Michael Bay can do with a $200 million budget.

Instead of rushing into the action, "Chronicle" has a great deal of fun showing us what three 17-year-olds might do if they secretly developed superpowers. With their abilities to manipulate increasing, our heroes take the time to use leaf blowers to scatter the skirts of pretty girls and to assemble Lego configurations without ever using their hands. And just imagine the practical jokes that you could play in a toy store with two of your superhero buddies.

But even though "Chronicle" helps you buy into the story with its neat camera tricks, the pleasant surprise is when it turns to its "Star Wars" roots and unfolds a story about balancing the power that the new abilities bring. Early on, Andrew and his compatriots are merely content with having a bit of fun with their power, but soon they have to set ground rules when it becomes clear they can be very dangerous. Some of the most effective shots in "Chronicle" show one our heroes as he slowly drifts toward the dark side, and we start to understand why Anakin Skywalker wasn't supposed to use the force when his blood was boiling.

What holds "Chronicle" together, though, is a set of actors that look and sound like they might actually be high school kids, allowing us to buy into a story that sounds too ridiculous to film. Michael B. Jordan, last seen in an early season of HBO's masterful drama "The Wire," stands out as the charismatic and heroic Steve, a guy who seems sinister at first but ends up being the most heroic of all. Kudos also goes to Michael Kelly, who manages to be a stern and abusive father without ever going over-the-top and feeling like a cliché.

Though the eventual clash between good and evil may have been handled better in a studio film, the foundation of "Chronicle" is strong enough to overcome a fairly weak conclusion. The limitations in the budget that soften the ending only show how impressive the rest of the movie actually is. At its best, "Chronicle" reminded me of the Chuck Palahniuk novel "Lullaby," a wicked dark comedy that ponders how you might use a spell that can kill anyone you wish on command. Similarly, "Chronicle" wonders just how long you might hold off from taking down the rotten school bully if you had superpowers. I guess a lot depends on whether you're destined to be Darth Vader or Obi-Wan Kenobi.

by RTT Staff Writer

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