CHRONICLE – Blu-ray review

You do not feel guilty when you squash a fly . . . and I think that means something.

We’ve all played this game. What if you could have ONE super power, which one would you choose? And who hasn’t, watching a bird dart through bushes and wing its way upward, pictured what it might be like to fly? Or what it feels like to be one of those squirrels walking a tightrope on electrical wires, then jumping from telephone pole to garage roof to trees? For that matter, thinking back to high school (or living the nightmare now), who hasn’t wondered what it might be like to be one of the popular kids, or to get revenge, somehow, on the bullies?

“Chronicle” plays to all those wistful imaginings, and frankly, that’s the main reason why this indie sci-fi action-thriller works. It strikes a common chord.

Shot with a relatively small budget of $12 million, “Chronicle” opens with a high school student named Andrew who’s sitting in his room with a camera trained on the door. On the other side, his drunken father is pounding, shouting, demanding to be let in. We’re led to believe that Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is documenting what’s happening for his own protection—the way that security cameras function. But he continues to film everywhere, whether he’s at school, at a “rave,” watching cheerleaders practice, or with friends.

What we see, mostly, in “Chronicle” is Andrew (or someone else using Andrew’s camera”) documenting what’s going on in his teenage life. I’m not a fan of the “Blair Witch Hunt” hand-held camera look, but “Chronicle” is appealing enough to where we forgive the herky-jerkiness. As for the characters, Andrew, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and Matt’s friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan) are all pretty nondescript types. They’re an average trio, which means that the average viewer is better able to identify with them.

Story and special effects—not the characters or acting—drive this film, though I’ll tell you right now that the way the guys move when they’re airborne doesn’t make you forget, for one minute, that they’re wearing harnesses and dangling from wires in front of a blue screen. But the story and those wistful imaginings viewers have while watching the guys are powerful enough to obviate any obviousness (sorry, I was feeling suddenly alliterative).

The CGI effects are much better than the wire work. There are explosions, car wrecks, objects flying here and there, and forks bending—all of which look real enough. But again, it’s the story by Josh Trank and Max Landis (John’s son) that carries the film.

We’re not too far into it before the three main characters are discovering a perfectly round crater hole and decide to enter it. We watch them as they discover a large crystal. It’s the exposure to this crystal, presumably from something otherworldly, that gives the three their powers. Shortly afterwards, we cut to the guys filming themselves as they do tricks with a baseball that would make major league pitchers drool, or playing with Legos in ways that little kids couldn’t even imagine. My personal favorite? Skipping pebbles across the water using telekinesis instead of arm power. Whatever that crystal was, it’s imbued our young average guys with the ability to move objects through space—and that, we quickly learn, includes themselves.

Trank directed this feature and has the good sense to let the story pretty much tell itself. There’s not much in the way of backstory and no impulse to explain anything—just showing what happens to three teens who are exposed to an extraterrestrial phenomenon and chronicling the effects that their newfound power has on each of them. The adage is that power corrupts, and we quickly see that too much power—or power exercised in anger—can lead to negative things. One of them quickly realizes that and proposes three rules: We can’t use it on people, we can’t use it when we’re angry, and we can’t use it in public.

There’s not much in the way of causal explanation. Symptoms the boys display just leave you wondering, although you can guess where the narrative is heading. A subplot featuring a female blogger is severely underdeveloped, and the decision to focus on only Andrew’s family might be second-guessed at some point in the future. But there are a few third act surprises, and those, plus the idea of ordinary teens amusing themselves and making mischief with their newfound telekinetic powers, are inherently fascinating.

Two versions of the film are provided: the PG-13 theatrical release, and the unrated director’s cut. I couldn’t find any printed information, but the latter appears to contain two minutes of additional footage, for a total run time of 86 minutes.

The video is made to look intentionally rough. At one point we’re shown a static scene and the center of the picture is blurred. Then, after a few moments, a hand wipes water off the lens and we can see clearly. There are an inordinate number of jarring straight cuts, too—apparently to replicate the gap when one presses start and stop on the camcorder. Some shots are grainy or flecked, but again it’s deliberate. So don’t look for the same level of detail on “Chronicle” as usually appears on a Blu-ray. You can tell the blurring and grain are deliberate, though, because of the sharp edge delineation and the level of detail in close-ups. “Chronicle” comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 encode, and if there are any artifacts, I didn’t see them. It’s presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.

The sound is also a bit rough, though I’m less inclined to believe it’s deliberate than I am with the video. Why? Because the sound seems to shift volume levels frequently, and “Chronicle” was generally recorded at a lower level. You really have to crank the volume up just to hear clear dialogue. “Chronicle” was transferred to a 50GB disc at a bit rate of 28MBPS. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with additional options in Spanish and French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround and subtitles in English SDH and Spanish. When the special effects kick in, so does the sound, with an active low bass that has just the right amount of rumble and piercing high tones. The mid-range is average, and the dialogue can seem a little rough at times—deliberate? Who knows.

The bonus features are a big fizzling disappointment. Besides a trailer and a couple of promos all you get is one deleted scene, a 7:48-minute “Pre-Viz” of two-dimensional shapes being manipulated for one of the flying scenes, and a 3:58-minute camera test featuring the fork-stabbing scene. That’s it. There are no additional features on the director’s cut. So unless you consider BD-Live features and the bonus DVD and Digital Copy, there’s not much here in the way of extras. And what’s here is pretty uninteresting and doesn’t give you much of a sense of filmmaking behind the scenes.

Bottom line:
Critics have taken a high-concept approach to this film, and it’s easy to toss off comparisons like “Blair Witch Hunt” meets “Harry Potter” and “Limitless.” There’s not much in the way of character development, and the acting, though competent, isn’t a selling point. The special effects are decent, but not incredible. If you buy “Chronicle,” it’s because of the concept itself, and the fun of watching three teens do things that, if you’re normal, you’ve always wondered what it might be like.