There are moments in Chronicle, a male version of the 1976 horror movie Carrie, that actually manage to evoke the wonder of cinema more surprisingly than any film since the awe-inducing moment in 1991’s Terminator 2 when the bad terminator reconstituted himself before our eyes as he rose from the institutional black-and-white tiles of an insane asylum.
That haunting, beautiful, and terrifying scene was the first truly inspired use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) on film—but in the 21 years since, the CGI that followed Terminator 2 has all but lost its capacity to make your jaw drop. CGI both revolutionized special effects and destroyed their impact. Now directors can depict everything they can imagine in the most literal terms, and the result is not an oh-wow cinema but a literal cinema. A car turns into a robot—big deal. By now, moviegoers know that they can be shown almost anything, and that what they’re seeing isn’t happening anyway, so what’s the point?
The point was, and always has been, to amuse. The special effect is nothing more than a magic trick, a way to make it appear as though something that violates the basic rules of science or gravity or reality or logic is happening before your eyes. Chronicle, the first film of a 26-year-old director named Josh Trank, brings back the amusement value, and the spirit of trickery.
Chronicle is designed as a “found footage” movie in the manner of The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, and Cloverfield—three enormously successful (and two of them low-budget) movies in which characters in the movie are filming things and what they are filming is what the audience sees. What we watch in Chronicle is the videography of a character named Andrew (the disturbing Dane DeHaan), who is making a moment-by-moment diary of his life in part to capture the cruelty to which he is subjected by his drunken, out-of-work father.
He and two friends enter a crater one night, find a mysterious lit room that looks like an alien craft, and the next thing you know, they have telekinetic powers. From there the plot gets uninteresting and dumb—Andrew goes crazy and the others have to stop him before he destroys Seattle, while the source of their powers and the world’s discovery of them go entirely unexplained. No, the real glory of this seemingly unassuming movie is the middle section, as the boys play with their new abilities.
Trank, working from a script by Max Landis, has a keen eye for what will make the supernatural appear utterly natural, and what a teenage boy would be likely to do with such talents. Andrew and his friends send Pringles potato chips from the tube into their mouths in a smooth arc; they build Lego Star Wars ships; they throw baseballs at each other’s heads to see who can deflect them. Trank shoots these deliberately offhand, with talk and actorly business in the foreground and the effects taking place off to the side or behind the performers, never in the center of the screen and never in closeup.
He even has Andrew the outcast perform a magic show during a talent contest at his high school that turns him into a local hero. Here Trank plays an exceptional double trick: We see exactly what the audience in the high-school auditorium sees, but we know that Andrew is doing it with his mind. At the same time, we are seeing the tricks happen in real time exactly like a magic show, and just as at a magic show, we can’t figure out how on earth it’s being done.
The effects gradually get more ambitious as the movie goes on—and as Andrew’s burgeoning abilities make it possible for him to manipulate the camera so that it can shoot at different angles and in different locations. The problem is that as they get more ambitious, the movie becomes duller and more conventional. A telekinetic fight to the death in downtown Seattle concludes the movie, and there isn’t a moment in it that has the impact of a stunning scene in which an increasingly psychopathic Andrew manipulates a spider before killing it in a gasp-inducing way.
Still, Chronicle is an instructive piece of filmmaking because it is a reminder that when someone who knows what he’s doing makes a real go of it, a movie can still blow your mind, even if only a little bit.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.