Guest Movie Review: The Chernobyl Diaries
If you were to discuss the current masters of horror in cinema, Oren Peli’s name would come up rather quickly. The Israeli filmmaker gave new life to the “found-footage” brand of filmmaking with his debut Paranormal Activity and quickly followed that up by producing the excellent Insidious and TV’s The River, not to mention more of the Paranormal Activity franchise.
In stark contrast to the expensive, gore-laden horror films that had dominated the industry in the late nineties and early 2000’s, Peli made a habit of doing more with less, creating his first film on a budget of just $15,000 dollars. To put that in perspective, the more typical horror film Halloween, released in 2007 (the same year as Peli’s PA), cost $15 MILLION to produce, but made less than half of PA’s $193 million at the box office. Lately, Peli seems to be on a “famous locations” kick; next year, he will be directing Area 51, which features a group exploring the legendary UFO hotspot, while his latest production effort is Bradley Parker’s Chernobyl Diaries. In it, a group of young people exploring the abandoned town of Pripyat outside of Chernobyl’s notorious disaster area discover that the site is not as deserted as they had been led to believe.
For those not familiar with the story, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was host to arguably the worst nuclear disaster in history. On April 26, 1986, the plant’s No. 4 reactor suffered catastrophic meltdown and blew up, spreading a cloud of radiation in such a wide diameter that it even reached Norway, a distance of about 2,000 kilometers. Pripyat, a town built to house Chernobyl’s workers and their families, was evacuated overnight. 50,000 people were not allowed to take any of their personal belongings with them, and the entire site is a ghost town that now sees occasional visitors interested in the history of the catastrophe. But in Chernobyl Diaries, something is hunting these unfortunate tourists, whose only desires involve surviving the attacks and returning to civilization.
Despite its interesting locale and talented producer, Chernobyl Diaries is typical horror fare all the way. There are an equal number of men and women, unknown enemies lurking in the darkness, and no semblance of intelligence in either party. Everything is (no pun intended) reactionary, and rookie director Bradley Parker allows in far too many secondary elements that he subsequently chucks aside without explanation or logic. He obscures his monsters in darkness not because they’re scary (they’re not), but because he’s afraid that they will look silly in the light. Trying perhaps a bit too hard at blending legendary terrors such as those in The Hills Have Eyes and Cujo, Parker ends up with less than he intends; his creatures are neither inspired nor clever.
Parker does have a flair for environments, and his stand-in for the abandoned city of Pripyat (somewhere in either Serbia or Hungary) is the film’s best performer, eerie in its complete silence and dilapidation. Much as I criticize hiding the monsters in shadows, Parker’s night actually works on some levels, ramping up the tension with the wonder of what is hiding beyond what we can see on the screen. It’s obvious that Peli rubbed off a bit on his protégé – his influence is the only thing that keeps Chernobyl Diaries’ mood anywhere near consistent. It’s still not very frightening, but you can see where Parker has some promise, and hopefully he will bring that to his future projects.
Ah, the fall of teen idols. Do teen girls still go gaga for Jesse McCartney, the one-time heartthrob who hasn’t really been relevant as an actor or a singer in a few years? God knows, they still go ape over pug-faced bodybuilder/bad actor Taylor Lautner, so I suppose anything’s possible. McCartney leads this motley cast, with a voice higher than any of the ladies, the pudginess of a young Leonardo DiCaprio and about a fifth of the actual talent. Not that we get anything in the sense of character anyway; each actor is the proud owner of a blank slate, generic personas that don’t stretch very far in any direction, lest they strain themselves and falter. The movie’s three-named blondes – Olivia Taylor Dudley and Ingrid Bolse Berdal – exist solely as screamers, with little to differentiate them from the cannon fodder of any like film. The rest are not much better, with Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski and Nathan Phillips, playing the “hero” types, standing out only slightly from the rest. These aren’t characters we ever get the opportunity to care about, and when their (largely off-screen) deaths occur, we couldn’t care less. And according to most filmmakers, why should we? Movies like Chernobyl Diaries exist solely to kill off the people we’ve just met. However, the better you ingratiate those characters, the more their deaths mean to us, and the scarier the film becomes as a result. Why is it that more directors don’t get that simple concept?
The worst thing about Chernobyl Diaries is not the mediocre acting, the painfully tight budget or even the sore lack of anything remotely frightening. Instead, the what might suck the whole thing up is that there doesn’t seem to be a point to the whole experience. Exploring a monster-infested nuclear wasteland should be fun for the audience, and while the setting itself is quite good, there is simply nothing here altering the fact that the film is a paint-by-numbers horror cliché. We see the hooks coming a mile away, the camera work looks like a poor recreation of an abandoned “found footage” style, and the movie fails to live up to the standards set by Peli himself. There haven’t been that many “bad” movies released this year, but Chernobyl Diaries surely makes the list. With Snow White & the Huntsman coming out this weekend, and Prometheus only a week later, there’s no reason you should be spending money here. See it at your own risk.
John C. Anderson is a freelance writer and movie enthusiast living in Boston. Check out Hello, Mr. Anderson for his latest film reviews.