Written by: Shane Van Dyke, Carey Van Dyke, and Oren Peli
Directed by: Bradley Parker
Starring: Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski and Olivia Dudley
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
ďHave you heard of extreme tourism?"
The Chernobyl Diaries is not a disaster that would befit its title, but it exhibits a minor meltdown of a concept and setting that deserve a better movie. Thereís really no excuse for a horror movie set in the radioactive shadow of Chernobyl to end up feeling like it was lazily cobbled together via a dartboard pitch that saw its writers land on ďAmerican tourists visit Eastern EuropeĒ and ďradiated mutants.Ē Combine this with the faux found-footage approach, and you end up with exactly the type of movie Cabin in the Woods was reacting against: a bland, boring, and by-the-numbers cash-in that owes its existence to the financially successful movies that came before it.
Four kids, all pretty much alike in their lack of dignity, have descended upon Ukraine. Chris (Jesse McCartney) and Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) are brothers, and the former is joined by his girlfriend (Olivia Dudley) and her friend (Devin Kelley). Paul is the jockish screw-up of the two, which probably explains why he trusts a shady tour guide (Dimitri Diatchenko) to take them to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster (and if you arenít acquainted with your historical nuclear disasters, thereís no shortage of dialogue to help you along). The guide has done this tour for five years without incident, but his luck runs out when his van breaks down, leaving him and his tourists stranded in a not-so-abandoned city.
I hate films like this--which is not to say I hate The Chernobyl Diaries; instead, I hate that I canít really hate it, nor can I like it on any level, even though thereís a serviceable movie buried somewhere in this concept. This, however, isnít it; youíll often hear me talk about films with good concepts that get fumbled by clumsy execution, but The Chernobyl Diaries isnít even one of those. Instead, itís just a film where you can see a minimum amount of effort exerted at every turn to keep it from submerging to any truly horrible depths that would at least make it a little unforgettable. It has taken the baby steps and formed itself into some semblance of a movie, but it seems completely okay with standing pat and not venturing out anywhere daring or imaginative.
Calling it a concept that isnít well-explored is more accurate; thereís a lot to like in the basic idea, especially since the filmmakers secured a great location, full of decrepit shells of buildings with dank, dark hallways and crumbling stairways. The surroundings are appropriately pallid and desolate, and it makes for a very good stand-in for Chernobyl; the biggest problem is that itís just not really filled with anything inventive. You expect a film like this to take on a sort of travelogue approach early, but the setup with the group exploring the area feels interminable; very little atmosphere or tension is built here outside of the tour guide discovering a mutated, razor-toothed fish and the ashes of a recently-lit fire.
There are a couple of requisite fake scares before night falls and the real terror sets in; however, said real terror basically consists of dogs. Not mutated hell hounds, either--just dogs. And this would be fine if they didnít represent the gist of the conflict, as the entire middle section of the film finds the characters poking about and being terrorized by these and something else thatís unseen until the last fifteen minutes or so. The approach here is actually somewhat admirable, as first time director Bradley Parker understands the value in mystery and the unseen--he just doesnít seem to give us much of a reason to care, especially when the payoff barely registers with a half-hearted surface-skimming of socio-political implications of the nuclear age, ŗ la The Hills Have Eyes (a film with a nuclear family being torn apart by a literally nuclear family).
Outside of two sequences, the film isnít found footage, but it sure thinks it is since the camera roves in handheld fashion. Sometimes, it feels like weíre a fly buzzing about as we hover near the group, and itís actually pretty well shot. As itís perhaps one step removed from found footage, it resembles the approach found in the Silent House films (albeit without the ďone long takeĒ angle); whereas those films strayed away and carved their own little niche, The Chernobyl Diaries stays beholden to the found footage technique for no good reason (even the title is nonsensical since there are no diaries to be found). As such, the camera shakes and jerks around when the film really ramps up, leaving you with a dearth of creepy imagery; instead, this is just another movie full of empty jolts and shocks that are at the service of a shoestring script that's barely made it past the "dumb kids go to Chernobyl and encounter weird stuff" treatment. About midway through, a local that joined the tour mentions the place is full of urban legends, a fact that would have been better served up front (both for the audience and the characters, though I doubt the latter would have been swift enough to skip the tour anyway).
Thatís just indicative of how half-assed The Chernobyl Diaries is; itís as if everyone involved expected to coast off of faux verite approach, and this should serve as proof that the technique canít do all the legwork on its own. Found footage films have a reputation for being bereft of real action and big plot points (the best shot of The Blair Witch Project is a dude standing in the corner as the film ends), but the good ones are heavy on atmosphere, tension, and intrigue. The Chernobyl Diaries has very little of this, and, while it does have a cast that does a good enough job of inhabiting and grounding their characters, mustering up even the tiniest shit about them is a chore (especially since it canít even decide who the main character is). Oren Peli is the big name attached here--heís one of the producers and screenwriters, and his success with Paranormal Activity likely influenced the aesthetic; however, the most telling names might be his co-writers, Carey and Shane Van Dyke, a couple of Asylum veterans making their leap to the big screen. If The Chernobyl Diaries were a ďmockbuster,Ē I suppose itíd be one of the best from a technical standpoint, but itíd also be the most forgettable. Indeed, itíll be nuked from your memory within hours. Rent it!
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