Back in April of 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power plant just outside of Prypiat in the Ukraine had a catastrophic accident and an explosion released enormous quantities of radioactive contamination in the atmosphere and surrounding area. It has long since been considered the worst nuclear power accident in the world. With a premise based in such a disturbing reality, there’s no way this could go wrong… right?
Apocalpyptic nuclear disasters isn’t a new concept when it comes to film or video games; some of my favorite media as it stands depict a barren wasteland where mutants and the constant threat of radiation poisoning are among the protagonists’ worries. The trailer for Chernobyl Diaries got me instantly interested in the film and I think that’s the first issue I should touch upon. A very basic teaser trailer that simply showed some creepy, desolate landscapes, a group of people and the words “Chernobyl” left a lot of room for my mind to wander on the possibilities of the film, essentially dooming it to my unrealistic expectations right from the get-go. What I was hoping for was perhaps a found-footage movie done with influences from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R.and Fallout video games and perhaps some B-movie horror one might expect from something like The Hills Have Eyes remake. Instead, what I was watching was a laughable, middling film that could barely reach the rank of a coherent plot.
The movie starts with Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley) and their friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) meeting Chris’ brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) in his new residence of Kiev, Ukraine during a European trip. Of course, this means bombardment of stupid pictures and handy-cam footage of the three galavanting around in different locations and was likely just an excuse for the director and staff to go on a bunch of mini vacations. In Kiev, Chris tells Paul he plans to propose to Natalie in Moscow (their next destination), which Paul postpones by finding an “Extreme Tours” guide named Yuri (Dimitri Diatchenko) who can take them to see Prypiat and the Chernobyl reactors. Being the chance of a life time, the group agrees and meet Yuri along with two other EXTREME TOURISTS, a young couple, Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). Yuri does the usual tour guide thing; walks the group around Prypiat, explains the story and background behind some of the buildings and shows them a safe view of the Chernobyl power plant. When they’re ready to leave, however, their van has been tampered with and won’t start. From there, I think you can guess how things go down.
One thing that always seems to plague movies like these (ridiculous thrillers) is the lack of respect or care put into character building. Personally, I find it extremely hard to care at all about what happens to a person in a movie if they aren’t made relateable enough and although that might say something about me as a humanitarian I would assume most people would tend to agree. The disconnect between real human beings and slabs of meat to cut up is a huge problem in Chernobyl Diaries but I can’t really put my finger on where the issue might stem from. The writing and dialogue isn’t exactly poor so much as it’s lacking any foot in reality and the actors are serviceable (at best) for “lamb-to-the-slaughter” roles such as these but even in that aspect their roles weren’t bad enough to warrant any pleasure from seeing them die. The situation they face isn’t all that daunting, either. A stupid decision Chris makes sticks as the single reason they all couldn’t just walk away from Prypiat and even then, the couple of Michael and Zoe show a baffling amount of conscience and loyalty when they don’t know these people at all or owe them a damn thing.
Pictures from mutations in real animals and human beings from the Chernobyl incident are abound online and are actually quite disturbing. This being said, you’d think they could come up with some neat mutant/monster designs for the movie. Unfortunately, what we get for the majority of the time are “wolves” (that look more like pet dogs), a mutated fish and a bear (in easily the best part of the movie). In one aspect, this could have all been really cool and taken the movie in a more “trying-to-survive” mode like my previously aforementioned video games but it still insists on going down a generic monster movie trail that personally left me wanting. The best thing the movie does is take a page out of the Jaws filmmaking book and they never REALLY show any of the human mutants, leaving your imagination to do most of the work. This is effective… until you catch a glimpse of one of the mutants and realize it’s most likely a symptom of either not having time or money to create any authetically terrifying monsters. One part in particular, has a strange armless and legless… thing… and rather than look sinister or gross just looks hilarious in a non-ironic way.
I’m not exactly sure how to feel about the actual… well, “feel”, of this movie. The director, Bradley Parker, has good experience in the industry as a visual effects artist and supervisor for such movies as Fight Club, xXx, Let Me In to name a few but this is his first directing credit so it’s hard to not simply want to pin all the film’s issues on him. What I will pin on him however is the lack of any visual structure in the way the film is presented; too often does it try for third-person POV and found footage style for exposition that it feels inconsistent. It’s also likely that Oren Peli had too much say in how this movie should be shot because a handful looked like something from Paranormal Activity with this stupid obsession with handheld cameras. The visual effects, the general look and ambience of the movie are totally fine, it’s the way that the movie is shot that makes it look bad.
For all my negativity, Chernobyl Diaries isn’t exactly what I would call a terrible movie… just one I couldn’t recommend anyone paying for. The whole movie felt like a student’s assignment that gets an A+ in theme but a D in effort. Perfect for a night of popcorn at home when there’s nothing else to do but not worth leaving your house for.