Chronicle - Alex Russell, Michael B Jordan and Dane DeHaan
Matt (Alex Russell), friend Steve (Michael B Jordan) and cousin Andrew (Dane DeHaan) discover a mysterious underground object that gives them super powers © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox

The “real world”-based DIY superhero genre takes a great leap forward — and upward — with this unsettlingly dark take on what happens when great power is exercised without great responsibility. The simple plot of this unique horror hybrid isn’t without its problems, but the movie’s surprisingly convincing special effects, unrefined attitude and clever video-centric conceit make it the first must-see flick of 2012.

The premise is simple enough: What if a bullied and friendless Peter Parker type who gained super powers turned out to be more psychotically spiteful than helpfully noble?

Like Spider-Man‘s Parker, Chronicle‘s socially inept Andrew (Dane DeHaan, bearing a striking resemblance to the What’s Eating Gilbert Grape-era Leonardo DiCaprio) is a timid high school pushover. Deciding to document the day-to-day details of his sorry existence, he begins carrying a video camera everywhere he goes.

Chronicle - Dane DeHaan
The dangerously unstable Andrew (Dane DeHaan) uses his mind to crush a car © 2012 Twentieth Century Fox

Chronicle‘s gimmick is that every shot in the movie is footage from home video, security or news cameras within the story itself. First-time feature director Josh Trank mostly keeps this technique from looking contrived, because Andrew’s unlikely obsession with constantly taping himself may be the least troubling of his mental problems.

What sets Chronicle apart from recent similar movies such as 2010’s Defendor and Kick-Ass or last year’s Super, in which regular joes decided to fight crime superhero-style, is that Andrew, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and their friend Steve (Michael B Jordan) acquire actual superpowers. They discover a glowing underground object apparently not of this earth that gives off an ominous drone, plays havoc with Andrew’s camera and confers mysterious mind-over-matter abilities to the trio.

Before long, the three are levitating objects, blowing up skirts and pranking unsuspecting strangers with various degrees of telekinetic mischief. Things get out of hand when Andrew mentally sweeps an annoying tailgater through a guardrail to crash in a lake, inspiring Matt to come up with three main rules they should follow: no using their talents on living things, no using them while angry and no using them in public.

Unstable Andrew increasingly ignores those guidelines, preferring to think of himself as an “apex predator” who is now better than everyone else. His recklessness and rage eventually lead to a mass-destruction urban showdown that feels more frighteningly catastrophic than the videogame violence of most comic-book movies.

Earlier scenes in which the teens discover the full extent of their powers also feel more relatable and genuine than those in slicker big-budget spectacles. When they develop the ability to fly, they note how windy and cold it is above the clouds, which is a nice touch.

Story-shortcoming-wise, it’s impossible to believe that three teenage boys — one who is the school punching bag, one who is running for class president and one who desperately wants to impress a blond blogger — would keep their new superpowers to themselves as long as they do. Parentally mistreated Andrew takes far too long to give his abusive father any payback. And even the most clueless high school senior with Andrew’s level of skills could figure out a better way to make money than by mugging three creeps and holding up a gas station.

Still, screenwriter Max Landis’ cinéma vérité-style variation on the superhero theme feels fresh enough that a sequel would be welcome.

[Rating: 4 stars]

Chronicle is released in theaters today, February 3 2012. The UK release occurred on February 1 and Australia on February 2.


James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.