By now the obsessive need of (generally young, male) characters to document every aspect of their lives via HD cam has been well noted by contemporary cinema. So has the resultant narcissism and inevitable barriers that constant filming erects between people and their lived experience. But what always struck me as false about movies like Cloverfield, A Love Affair of Sorts, and now Josh Trank's Chronicle, films in which all the footage comes to us via on-screen cameras operated by the characters, is that their critiques of a culture obsessed with getting everything down on tape rely on such an exaggerated notion of documentation that they often negate their own insights. Yes, if someone were determined to film every moment of his or her life, that person might fail to engage directly with the outside world, but how many people actually take their camera with them everywhere they go?
Trank's film doesn't exactly have anything new to offer an already moribund mini-genre, nor is it particularly subtle in its points (to the complaint that his project distances him from his immediate life, a character replies, "Maybe I want a barrier"), but it at least handles its gimmick with consistent effectiveness and occasional imagination. The story of three high school kids who acquire telekinetic superpowers after discovering a strange crystal in a hole in the ground outside a rave, Chronicle sets up as an odd morality play about boyish fantasy and the will to power. As we watch the three young men—bullied outcast Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his somewhat dopey cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and cool-kid Steve (Michael B. Jordan)—revel in their newfound abilities, it's hard not to share their sense of excitement, especially during a genuinely thrilling sequence in which the trio soars joyously through the clouds, savoring a sense of freedom absent from their terrestrial lives. (Apparently telekinesis, when trained on one's self, allows a person the ability to fly.) After awhile, however, we realize that the kids have no intention of using their powers for anything other than petty pranks and silly wish fulfillment, and in Andrew's case, this fulfillment manifests itself in the desire to be popular.
But popularity is a fleeting thing, as Chronicle is quick to acknowledge, and even as the film indulges with a little too much uncomfortable complicity its characters' desire to win personal childish glory, it ultimately recognizes the hollowness of such pursuits. Unfortunately, the only alternative to being a folk hero, at least for beleaguered Andrew, is to be a monster, and the film's final act devolves into a horror-movie showdown, complete with an (admittedly) exhilarating round of urban destruction and a perpetually unkillable villain. Throughout the movie, Matt ham-fistedly name-drops a range of philosophers, from Plato to Schopenhauer, providing a bit of comic relief at the awkwardness of the references. He never mentions Nietzsche, but he doesn't have to because Andrew constantly, if indirectly, alludes to the German writer's concept of the Übermensch, as he converts a youthful feeling of impotence into a will to power, declaring himself an "apex predator" as he goes on a final murderous rampage.
Although Trank and screenwriter Max Landis seem determined to explain, if not justify, Andrew's behavior, their efforts at tempering his murderous tendencies with empathetic understanding feel more than a little like special pleading. Yes, Andrew is continually bullied at school, has an alcoholic father who beats him, and tends to a dying mother, but when he begins robbing convenience stores to pay for his mom's meds, the film comes a little too close to condoning the character's power-mad actions. But even setting aside any ethical objections, Chronicle finally fails to deliver the goods, offering up little more than a tired morality play about the dangers of power, rehashing stale insights about the narcissism of the documentary impulse and, setting aside a pair of thrilling set pieces, delivering considerably less of the genre thrills than might be the minimum expectation of such an exercise.