I'm not sure if I should like the "found footage" gimmick more or less as a documentary fan. But as someone generally interested in narrative perspective and filmmaking structure I'm still fascinated by the concept, even if I don't love each film that employs this style. Chronicle is one that I do appreciate for the ways it plays with the format and gets around many of its usual limitations while also unfortunately creating other issues. I recognize the silliness of adding an inessential character who also has her own camera and of the supplementing police investigation camera that "has to be one" for barely explained reasons. This isn't a movie to be believed so much as enjoyed on different levels, though, and I like that the filmmakers seem to acknowledge the artifices for what they are and put them forward as a means rather than a plausible or logical element. It's a very reflexive movie, no more apparent than when a super-powered self-documenter begins floating his camera away from himself as a way of joining in the frame. I could name a number of first-person nonfiction filmmakers who would love to have that ability.
Some people seem to agree with me that Chronicle does excellent new things with the gimmick, while many others see it as a major drawback in an otherwise fun new superhero movie. I just want to address some of the criticisms against it before rounding them up. The issue with the film opening up to include other perspectives and cameras of all kinds is actually something I like about the film. Not only does it play with the idea of people with cameras using them as both shield and as a form of power (the protagonist and the inessential blogger girl note that it's a way of capturing and exposing injustices) but also deals with the increasing fact that we live in a world constantly being documented from all sides. The question of "who found all this footage and compiled it" is moot. Maybe God did it. Maybe a superpowered teen did it (grabbing footage from different legs of perspective as easily as ripping off the legs of a spider). Just because it's all "filmed" from cameras within the world we're watching doesn't mean it has to wholly be any different than the omniscience of most movies. After all, we're watching it all in a "real time" chronology so it's not so much about found footage as found lenses with which to view the action. I bet some crowd-sourcing collaborative documentary producers would love that ability.
Yes, Chronicle is escapist entertainment to a degree, but there can be more to it than that, and there is. Don't ignore the way it's being filmed while enjoying it, and don't ignore the philosophical cues either. That's what makes a movie fun rather than mindless mush.
What are people saying positively about the "found footage" aspect of Chronicle? Here's The Conversation heard around the Internet:
the found-footage aspect may put some people off. As a rule, I’m not a fan of these types of films, but CHRONICLE goes right where a lot of these films go wrong. [...] Watching CHRONICLE is almost enough to make me reconsider my stand on found-footage films. - Chris Bumbray, JoBlo.com
The found-footage genre opens up an excuse for rawer, more erratic storytelling methods. In "Chronicle," director Josh Trank uses jump cuts, diegetic sound and unorthodox framing strategies to follow the increasingly fantastical journey [...] The movie maintains a consistently energizing feel as it brings us an intimate view of the boys' developing abilities, from constructing Lego sets with their minds to playing football in the clouds once they figure out how to fly. - Eric Kohn, Indiewire
The basic problem with found-footage is that its very nature narrows its scope of perspective to the viewing capacity of the person holding whatever recording device actually serves as our protagonist. It makes story and storyteller inextricable which, while interesting in theory, saddles the visual storytelling scheme with a bad case of tunnel vision. [...] Here is where Chronicle truly excels. It uses superhero mechanics to soar above the limitations of first-person point of view. - Brian Salisbury, Movies.com
A few times during this movie, I found myself thinking to myself, "This is why found footage movies exist." - Charlie Jane Anders, io9
For a “found footage” hand-held film, the movie has some great shots. It fits into the story – as his powers increase, Detmer uses part of his mind to control the camera, so all three young men appear in shots together. It’s a neat choice, and lets Trank be artistic in a movie that’s supposed to look amateurish. [...] What sets “Chronicle” apart from other found footage movies I’ve seen is the climactic battle – two teen supermen smashing each other through buildings in downtown Seattle. Trank splices footage from different hand-held cameras, traffic cameras, security cameras and police cameras to create the multiple views that make up the showdown between Detmer and Garetty. Aside from the audio disparity between shots – a chopper’s camera contains background police band chatter, while a security camera contains no sound at all –Trank’s climactic fight is both enjoyable to watch and fun to analyze. - Darin Miller, Big Hollywood
The documentary style, while some may say is getting old; I think it adds a tremendous originality to this genre. - Charlie Fischer, Dog and Pony Show
"Chronicle" takes great creative liberties with the use of perspective: for instance, the "cameraman character" is a much more involved, on-screen player than the role is usually allowed in these kinds of movies. That's thanks largely to the telekinetic force at the center of "Chronicle," removing the need for a man behind the lens. But that's not the only way Trank plays with perspective — to say any more would be saying too much. - Josh Wigler, Splash Page
I've never been especially fond of found footage films, but Chronicle manages to pull it off without making you want to hurl into your bag of popcorn. It's never too clunky and eventually Andrew uses his telekesis to have the camera smoothly float around them. Plus, this immersive view really helps you dive into their reality when they're soaring through the sky and playing a game of catch in the clouds. It might sound silly, but you really feel like you're part of their powered experience. - Gregg Katzman, UGO
This brings me to the other thing that I admired about the film, but also infuriated me. "Chronicle" wisely gets rid of the "cheap" camera about 15 minutes in and replaces it with a camera that looks good. But, magically, all of the scenes are professionally lit and the audio levels are perfect. Also: who "cut" this found footage. Because all of the points of views are from within-the-world cameras -- someone is cutting between them. And doing so with traditional Hollywood coverage! [...] So it's not just found footage -- it is assembled footage. - Jordan Hoffman, via Mike Ryan, Moviefone
It's how Trank and Landis frame the story in the found footage p.o.v. that makes "Chronicle" so intriguing and entertaining. - Gregory Ellwood, HitFix
This uneven but earnest, often exhilarating film derives its greatest interest from the way it turns the found-footage format inside out: At some point Andrew learns to control the camera’s movement with his mind, so instead of seeing what he sees, we're watching a self-directed version of his life. When that movie becomes a kind of disaster pic it would seem that the further we move from Andrew’s literal perspective, the deeper we get into his psyche and the hellmouth of teenage rage. By the time he’s putting the entire metro area on notice -- having thrashed his father and all the local bullies -- Andrew has no camera and the metaphor has run away with the story entirely. The crazy thing is it almost works. - Michelle Orange, Movieline
Part of the genius of "Chronicle" is that because the boys are telekinetic, they can just make the camera float wherever it's needed--and because they're melodramatic teens, they tend to do go for things like God's-eye-view shots that help set the appropriate tone. Brilliant. - Scott Ross, Popcorn Biz
While that method obviously can’t be applied to other found-footage films, it doesn’t detract from the creativity of the Chronicle filmmakers, who were especially methodical in delivering both an entertaining and unique movie that’s made better because of its found-footage format. - Ben Kendrick, Screen Rant
Of course, it is still ridiculous how often Andrew is actually filming and where he takes the camera, such as a late night pouting session 30,000 feet in the air. Combine that with an equally obsessive camera operator played by Ashley Hinshaw, who is constantly filming even if it's just to open the front door, and you're well beyond ridiculous. But, for what it's worth I liked the presentation. - Brad Brevet, Rope of Silicon
What are people saying negatively about the "found footage" aspect of Chronicle? Here's The Conversation heard around the Internet:
The found-footage conceit still sucks, because not only is it totally unnecessary and never justified, by creating the unnecessary constraint that all footage has to come from one of the characters filming, we end up getting both the artsy-photographer-girl-as-love-interest, AND the character-is-filming-his-entire-life-for-a-blog. Screenwriters, seriously, stop it with the photographer chick. What are you, 12? “She’s not just a pretty face, bro, she takes pictures!” Oy. Even worse, this girl is apparently filming her entire life for some never-explained blog. Now, ever since reality TV became a thing, every stoner asswipe thinks it’s super clever to say, “What’s next, man? Eventually we’re all just going to be filming our entire lives, because the internet.” No. This is everyone’s dad’s faux-profound take on technology, and it’s about as insightful as “women be shoppin’.” It’s a dumb gimmick, but Chronicle might never have gotten made without a dumb gimmick that sounded good in a pitch meeting. Hopefully they won’t need a gimmick next time. - Vince Mancini, Film Drunk
There are many exhilarating moments and ideas in "Chronicle" that make it a very good movie; if the filmmakers had ditched the unnecessary framing device of the characters filming themselves, it might have been a great one. - Alonso Duralde, Reuters
The movie itself seems exasperated with the gimmick, constantly trying to find ways around it or giving lame explanations for why the characters are filming themselves. (My favorite is when a police officer refers to the camcorder next to an unconscious person’s hospital bed and says, “The camera has to stay on for the investigation.”) Andrew’s angry father discovers his expensive camera and throws a fit about the waste of money it represents — but leaves it running while they argue, lest the movie audience miss this important scene. One of the first things Andrew does with his telekinesis is use it to make the camera float around him so he doesn’t have to hold it all the time. You know what a found-footage movie looks like when it’s shot with a floating camera? A regular movie. I gotta say, when even the characters are tired of the movie’s gimmick, maybe it’s time to retire the gimmick. - Eric D. Snider, Film.com
The "found-footage" element was a drawback for me. I saw why the filmmakers used it, but I also thought it really boxed the movie in at a certain point-- it became less and less effective as the movie went on. - Katey Rich, Cinema Blend
It's a pretty flimsily explained aesthetic and one that has essentially no bearing on the film, except perhaps on the budget (which may have helped get this made, we're guessing). - Kevin Jagernauth, The Playlist
When they head to a party and we jump perspectives to a girl (Ashley Hinshaw) with her own camera, she must yell out, “I’m filming this for my blog!” I understand the need to qualify the camera placement, but moments like this do nothing but take you out of the movie. By the end of the film, we’re jumping to dozens of different angles from all over the city of Seattle, leaving me thinking who crowd-sourced all this footage and edited it so perfectly. - Jordan Raup, The Film Stage
It’s difficult to determine whose perspective this story is coming from and the found footage gimmick becomes distracting and irritating. - Glenn Kay, News in Film
When the third act rolls around and the movie begins abandoning Andy’s camera for security footage, cell phone cameras, and whatever video recording device is in the area, then the story-telling device loses its power. The film must now work for the found-footage approach instead of the other way around. The action is enjoyable enough, but we’ve taken a step back and now wonder, “Who edited all of this together? Who got access to all of this footage?” - Matt Goldberg, Collider
I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother the hell out of me the whole time; I was constantly aware that what I was seeing looked too good, was too well put together to be found footage. At the same time I hate the found footage aesthetic, so I was thankful for Chronicle’s well-composed shots and excitingly staged (and mostly coherent) action scenes. On the one hand Chronicle utterly fails as a found footage film, but on the other hand it really succeeds as a well-made film film. - Devin Faraci, Badass Digest
Nitpicking at its execution aside, there’s no real purpose for the found footage angle. Who assembled the footage from all of these disparate sources (including security cameras, cell phones and police car cams) and why? It doesn’t fit the “police evidence” explanation used by the Paranormal Activity films, and it’s not presented as a record compiled by a specific individual. The only purpose it serves is to the title. - Rob Hunter, Film School Rejects
The real flaw is the use of the constant documentation ala the found footage gimmick. The constant fourth wall motif totally takes you out of the narrative, and several of the shots and setups really force the issue. I get it, I get it — if they weren’t videotaping everything the whole time, it wouldn’t really be a “chronicle.” But what it would have been would be an outstanding and original superhero origin story. Besides, nothing good ever came from being a Chronicle: Riddick, Narnia, Sarah Connor, or Spiderwick. - Brian Prisco, Pajiba
Perhaps now the found-footage gimmick has been fully exploited; let us never speak of it again. - Scott Tobias, A.V. Club
Conversation Twitter Poll: Does the "found footage" aspect of Chronicle seem to be a drawback or benefit?
(those who've seen it)
@wiliambgoss: A drawback, and I'm often an apologist for the technique.
@ericdsnider: HUGE drawback.
@BalitosisX: Above average, quick entertainment. Enjoyed the world of the story. "Found footage" style both aides and hinders film.
@TheBestCaptainK: I really wish it wasn't a found footage film, but CHRONICLE breathes a whole lot of life into the superhero genre.
(those who haven't seen it)
@mousterpiece: It would turn me off, if not for the cast.
@JeremyKKirk: Increases interest but only slightly. I'm more interested in a lower budget superhero movie than how that movie is presented.
@klejdys: No change. I think it looks wildly entertaining.
@jessecarp: Is it 'found' footage? Feels very present. For the sake of not argument even w the inventive freeing up it's still a drawback.
@the_hellhounds: Just found out Chronicle is a "found" footage film. Noooooooo!!!! #damnyoublairwitch
Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter (@thefilmcynic) to join The Conversation.