Exciting ‘Chronicle’ Could Have Skipped the Gimmicks

Clever teen sci-fi-action epic “Chronicle” suffers from the recent glut of first-person-camera movies

The heart sinks a bit with the opening shot of “Chronicle”: a teenager sets up a video camera in front of the mirror and begins narrating the movie, much of which will be seen from his point of view through the lens of his own camera.

After the bait-and-switch of the awful “The Devil Inside” and countless other knock-offs of “The Blair Witch Project” and “Cloverfield,” it’s hard not to lose hope when a film begins with a lens cap coming off and someone saying, “Are we rolling?”

And that’s a shame, because “Chronicle” is a fresh, thrilling teen sci-fi and action movie that deserves better than to be lumped in with the irritating found-footage/mockumentary genre.

Had 26-year-old screenwriter Max Landis trusted his story enough to abandon the tired “we’re seeing everything through the video camera being lugged around by the characters” shtick, the results would have been much more exciting. But even saddled with this overdone gimmick, “Chronicle” gives us some novel twists on a somewhat familiar premise.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan), the kid with the camera, is a shy, nerdy outsider, plagued by day by high school bullies and tormented at night by his drunken father (Michael Kelly) and the knowledge that his ailing mother (Ashley Hinshaw) isn’t getting any better. Andrew’s cousin Matt (Alex Russell) tries to get him out of his shell by taking him to a party, where it becomes clear that Andrew is not going to be putting down that damn camera, no matter what the situation.

Matt and popular jock Steve (Michael B. Jordan) get Andrew to follow them out into the woods to document a strange hole that they’ve found. And when Steve and Matt insist on climbing down into it, Andrew has no choice but to follow them into a strange chamber that appears to host some sort of alien life forms and energy source.

In true comic-book origin story fashion, the three teens suddenly find that they can manipulate objects with their minds. (Including the ubiquitous camera, so at least we don’t get the usual “hand-held” shake.) And once they figure out how to lift their own bodies off the ground, they go soaring in the clouds, in a breathtaking sequence. Unlike comic-book characters, however, they don’t suddenly become crime-fighters. Being teenage boys, they’d rather lift up girls’ skirts (an homage to ’80s comedy “Zapped!” perhaps?), play pranks on unsuspecting bystanders, do “magic” tricks and get revenge on their enemies.

Actually, it’s Andrew who’s doing the latter, and as the story proceeds, it’s clear that this mentally fragile young man isn’t ready for the incredible powers he’s been given, so it’s up to his two friends to stop him when his moral compass goes spinning out of control.

Landis treats his teen characters like actual high-schoolers, and he’s very smart about making situations feel true-to-life even when aliens and telekinetic powers enter the picture. And though the whole first-person business seems like a mistake, the screenplay definitely commits to the concept, using everything from a pretty young video-blogger to iPads and surveillance cameras to capture the action. (“Chronicle” makes the none-too-subtle point that, these days, you’re never far from someone with a camera.)

First-time director Josh Trank, who will celebrate his 27th birthday later this month, deftly juggles the emotional moments with the scenes where teens exuberantly discover their amazing new powers. (The special effects, incidentally, are top-notch as well.) The film’s world-view goes from intimate at the beginning to a climatic event sprawled out over a bigger canvas, but Trank never loses track of the proceedings.

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.