It owes a great debt to the found-footage concept behind "The Blair Witch Project," has some of the aesthetic and tonal touches of "Cloverfield" and probes the same sorts of philosophical notions about the burden of power that serve as the basis for the "X-Men" series.
And yet, "Chronicle" still has enough energy and ingenuity to serve as thrilling entertainment all its own.
First-time feature director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis (as in son-of-John) have come up with a clever way to tell a hand-held, point-of-view story without relying on the same old grainy, headache-inducing shaky-cam techniques we so often must endure: The camera can levitate. Because the three teenagers who take turns operating it have acquired the power of telekinesis.
These are three recognizable high school types: nerdy loner Andrew (Dane DeHaan, who resembles a young Leonardo DiCaprio), popular athlete Steve (the charismatic Michael B. Jordan) and Matt (Alex Russell), Andrew's scholarly cousin who falls somewhere in the middle of the social hierarchy. One night in the woods outside a party, they happen to come together to discover a hole in the ground and decide to explore it. Since Andrew chronicles everything with his video camera — because everyone his age chronicles everything — he documents what they find: some sort of glowing cosmic thing which fascinates them, and also gives them the ability to move and manipulate things with their minds.
Rather than embark on some important superhero adventure, they do what regular kids would do. They mess with people at Wal-Mart. They toy with pretty girls. They get really good at beer pong. They become emboldened individually and egg each other on — and they find that this new gift is like a muscle that gets stronger the more they use it. Eventually they figure out how to fly, which provides some of the film's most exciting and startling moments and also marks the beginning of the end of all their seemingly harmless, adolescent fun. (The visual effects are surprisingly seamless and realistic and, until the end at least, feel believable because they're not grandiose.)
"Chronicle" gets dark quickly, especially as the put-upon Andrew finally comes into his own physically, if not from an emotional maturity standpoint. Long the victim of his alcoholic father's abuse and the bullying of his classmates, he finds himself heading toward the dark side of the force.
The third act goes a little haywire, especially as the camera device collapses in favor of various points of view. Surveillance footage shows up out of nowhere, which takes us distractingly out of the picture, given that the thread that held the narrative together was the idea that we were always watching something that one of these kids shot themselves. "Chronicle" had even gone to the trouble to add a second camera, from pretty video blogger Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), just to maintain the integrity of this conceit.
Still, this is an auspicious beginning for a couple of exciting, young filmmaking voices.
"Chronicle," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for intense action and violence, thematic material, some language, sexual content and teen drinking. Running time: 84 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.