With hazily defined mutants chasing annoying characters in
the dark, Chernobyl Diaries is more hairbrain than horror
Chernobyl Diaries (15)
Directed by: Bradley Parker
Starring: Jonathan Sadowski, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Philips, Devin Kelley, Dimitri Diatchenko, Olivia Taylor Dudley
IS IT ACCEPTABLE for a genre film to use a real- life tragedy as a jumping off point for run-of-the-mill low-budget shocks? Monster movies and war films do it all the time, of course, but it’s still a question that might run through your mind watching Chernobyl Diaries thanks to the way it needlessly invokes the 1986 Ukrainian nuclear disaster for the sole purpose of furnishing an otherwise rote, Americans-trapped-in-a-hostile-foreign-environment tale with some name recognition.
Cooked up by Paranormal Activity’s Oren Peli (who co-wrote the script), and directed by first-timer Bradley Parker (a visual effects specialist making the jump to directing), the premise certainly doesn’t justify the title’s cultural significance. Following a group of six travellers as they embark on a spot of “extreme tourism” by signing up for a guided trip to Pripyat – the abandoned city near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant that was designed to house its workers – the film could just as easily have used a fictionalised locale with no detriment to the story it ultimately ends up telling. If anything, fictionalising it would have been to the film’s advantage: the news this week that scores of English football supporters attending the European Championships in the Ukraine have been taking official, government-sanctioned tours of Pripyat on the days in between their team’s matches has rendered somewhat laughable the film’s use of Chernobyl as a lazy explain-all setting for the hazily conceived monsters that inevitably start picking the characters off one by one.
Before we even get to these monsters, though, there’s an awful lot of bland, dilatory scene-setting to get through, including a tokenistic attempt to justify the Diaries part of the title with some quickly abandoned video-blog footage of the protagonists making their way through Eastern Europe (despite the involvement of Peli and the prevalence of annoying shaky-cam cinematography, the film isn’t a “found footage” movie). These protagonists include recently dumped Amanda (Devin Kelly), her best friend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Natalie’s wholesome boyfriend Chris (American boyband star Jesse McCartney), and Chris’s older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) who now lives in Kiev and impetuously signs them up for the Chernobyl tour.
Said tour is run by a shady ex-special forces soldier called Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), a man who carries a gun in the glove compartment of his rickety van and knows alternative ways into the exclusion zone when checkpoint guards refuse the group entry. Convention dictates that Uri might have an ulterior motive for luring a group of relatively affluent Westerners into an abandoned town, but if he does, the film can’t be bothered to think one up. Indeed the closest Chernobyl Diaries gets to a red herring is the school of never-referred-to-again mutant fish we see ominously swimming away at one point. Elsewhere, the group – which also includes a bearded Australian backpacker (Wolf Creek’s Nathan Philips) and his Scandinavian girlfriend (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, on blonde scream queen duty) – encounter a bear, some vicious dogs and lots of dilapidated breezeblock apartment buildings filled with the hastily left artifacts and accoutrements of those forced to flee town 26 years earlier.
If the filmmakers were genuinely interested in anything more than making a cheap exploitation movie in a cheap Eastern European location, such details and place specificity could have been used to comment in interesting ways the gawking nature of so called “Pollution Tourism” in the digital age. But they’re not, not even when one character’s interest in photography is declared early on. In fact, this may be the first low-budget horror movie in the history of the genre to be completely bereft socio-political subtexts. All of which would be fine if the primary story being told was at all interesting. Sadly that’s not the case. What you see is what you get in Chernobyl Diaries, and what you get are a lot of hazily defined, barely seen mutants chasing annoying characters in the dark.
What’s even more annoying is that every time we come close to discovering what these creatures are – we frequently see them lurking in the background or hovering on the edge of the shot – the film teasingly turns away so another of the protagonists can behave in an irrational manner.
Of course, a better film might have been able to justify the characters’ actions as the credible responses of panicked individuals in a disorientated state, but here it’s hard to escape the notion that they do stupid things purely so the story can progress. Not that it really does progress. Instead it stumbles on until a last-minute attempt to add intrigue with an unsatisfying twist brings proceedings to a halt in a way that suggests the filmmakers don’t really understand the difference between ambiguity and nonsense.
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