Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Chernobyl Diaries (now in theaters)

Review by Charles Cassady, Jr.

A lackluster horror throwaway (not that a dozen or so direct-to-video sequels are out of the question), CHERNOBYL DIARIES at least did boast one of the better trailers I’d been seeing lately. Even I knew automatically the movie was going to suck. Even I knew that all the cool bits were right there in the trailer. Going to see this timewaster is like going out with a skanky female who looks and dresses in a strangely alluring manner and you just know you’re going to regret it later. Clevelanders should really have better things to do, like wondering what LeBron is doing right now, or…well, that’s pretty much it for us - wondering what LeBron is doing right now.

The picture trades on the name of producer-writer Oren Peli, the dude whose original PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, about the cost (and the intelligence) of a minor film-school project, raked in millions from the horror dweebs. Here Peli, at least according to publicity, drew from a real-life trend of “extreme tourism,” thrillseekers going to visit the ghost town of Pripyat, outside the abandoned, radiation-tainted Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the former USSR. According to the press bulletins Peli and director Bradley Parker even looked in to shooting on location near Chernobyl but decided not to after learning of the radioactive dust still prevalent in the area (and, likely, the lawsuits arising from Howard Hughes’ THE CONQUEROR; Google that one, kids). So filming took place in Serbia and Hungary instead.

The plot could write itself and pretty much does. Six westerners – two American couples and a British backpacker and his Scandinavian pickup – enjoying the nightlife of Kiev, fall for the “extreme tourism” offered by a shady ex-commando named Uri, who takes them in his rickety van to Pripyat, a factory town of nuclear workers and their families that had to be evacuated overnight when the nuclear reactor vaporized in 1986. At the main checkpoint, however, armed guards ward off the visitors, declaring the site down for “maintenance.” Rather than losing his fee, Uri takes the kids into the empty city via more off-limits, rural route.

With vague hints of nasty mutated fish in the river and no birds in the bleak forest, the foreigners romp through the spooky town and its cheerless, high-rise housing blocks, while Uri keeps watch on his Geiger counter. As night falls, however, and it’s time to go, the group discovers that some unknown marauder has sabotaged the van, and they’re stranded, in a dead city...that’s not so deserted after all.

I should preface that CHERNOBYL DIARIES is not another “found footage” mockumentary, though it could have been, with little appreciable change in quality one way or another. It does borrows a lot from the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY/BLAIR WITCH playbook: unknown actors with thinly sketched characters (two Americans are brothers with issues with each other, okayyyy…) shaky camerawork, a lot of stuff aggressively unexplained, and an awful lot left to the viewer’s imagination. Really an awful lot. In fact, practically everything left to the viewer’s imagination, as the victims are chased and terrorized by barely-glimpsed mutants through dark alleys and corridors. Part of me was expecting this movie to turn into a ripoff of THE HILLS HAVE EYES, but it doesn’t – there isn’t even that much script – and I guess we’re spared the comedown that the bald Chernobylians probably look exactly like all the fanged, feral gnomes we already saw in THE DESCENT, I AM LEGEND, BLADE II etc. But come on, guys, would it have been overtime pay to just put a little bit more effort into this?

Like I said, CHERNOBYL DIARIES has enough good scenes to fit out a trailer and there it is, take it or leave it.  

If this movie had worked to any great extent (wayyy overthinking things, Charles), it could have been something like a monster version of Tarkovsky’s STALKER, that Soviet “classic” that, for me, just amounted to three stunned intellectuals creeping endlessly through awesome ruins. The Eastern European sets here passing for greater Chernobyl are indeed eerie enough, though one wonders if in certain parts of the world using the Chernobyl disaster for horror schlock is poor taste. I say the Russians and the Ukrainians have earned the right to do their own creature feature in which World Trade Center victims of 9/11 rise again as flesh-eating ghouls. I wonder if LeBron would agree? (1 ½ out of 4 stars)

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