For those of you who are too young to remember, the most significant nuclear power accident in history occurred in 1986, at the Chernobyl reactor #4. Chernobyl was situated a ways out into the country, thankfully, but this meant that they had had to build a whole town next door to house all the workers and their families. And when the reactor began to melt down, the entire town of Pripyat had to be evacuated instantly. Thousands of people left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
A couple decades later, the area has cooled down a bit. Almost all of the radioactive material in the air has fallen out, and radioactive isotopes are generally sequestered into soil or vegetation. Nothing growing there is really edible, but you can walk around and breathe the air for a few hours with little more radiation exposure than a dental X-ray or an airplane flight. At least, that is, in Pripyat; the Chernobyl reactors themselves are still incredibly hot.
So, post-Soviet Ukraine having embraced capitalism, this has led to exciting new opportunities in the field of “extreme tourism”. for the less adventurous, photo galleries are available all around the internet, showing what happens when a city full of people just get up and leave. Even just looking at pictures online, it gets pretty freaking creepy after a while.
And so — the sentiments of the people who were actually evacuated aside — Pripyat is the perfect setting for a horror movie. And who better to produce a horror movie set next to the radioactively-smoking ruins of a Soviet nuclear power plant, with overtones about the relationships Eastern European cultures have both with their own past and with the wider world than Timur Bekmambetov?
Unfortunately, Chernobyl Diaries was produced by Oren Peli, of Paranormal Activity fame. And while the usual complaint about his movies doesn’t hold — scary stuff actually happens — there’s still nothing really approaching a real, cohesive story behind all the bumps and screams.
To get to Pripyat, we follow Paul (Jonathan Sadowski),who as been living in Kiev. His brother, Chris (Jesse McCartney), Chris’ girlfriend, Amanda (Devin Kelley), and Amanda’s friend, Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), have all come to visit him on one leg of a European vacation. Paul makes arrangements with local independent tour guide — and former Soviet special forces officer — Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) for the group to visit Pripyat. As they board Uri’s van they’re joined by a couple of backpackers — Zoe and Michael (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal and Nathan Phillips) — and the group head off to their doom.
At first, nothing is out of the ordinary, and we get a tour of a nicely creepy abandoned city. But when they try to leave the group find that the van’s electrical system has been ripped out. Or, at least, enough has been ripped out to keep it from starting but not enough to affect the interior lights. From here it’s a steady descent into shaky, unfocused camerawork and plenty of shocks.
Which is all fine, if that’s what you want in a horror movie. But if you want some sort of story to back up all the screaming, you’re going to be disappointed. Clearly there’s someone or something else out here, but it’s not quite clear exactly who or what that is. There’s no explanation offered for why the army checkpoints are content with containing whatever it is and not destroying it if it’s so dangerous. Once it starts turning over, Shane and Carey Van Dyke’s script has no time for such petty nuisances as it tosses the audience from one shock to another.
No, what Chernobyl Diaries wants is to scare the daylights out of you. And at this narrow task, it’s highly effective. While some directors will use handheld shakycam footage as a proxy for a sense of realism, I’m pretty sure that Bradley Parker actually did have two actors just fire up their mobile phones to shoot video, and then rolled the van over while they tried delivering their lines. His background in visual effects — this is Parker’s first time actually directing — has taught him this valuable lesson: when push comes to shove, no CGI trickery really measures up to a well-executed practical effect.
So if you’re looking for an undemanding film that can scare someone out of their undergarments and into your lap, this may just do the trick. If you like your horror with a little more meat to it, give this one a miss.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.