A formulaic horror film with the backdrop of a true historical disaster, “Chernobyl Diaries” seems to casually abuse the real-life story behind the abandoned city of Pripiat for the sake of a few scares. The movie relies on dark shapes, sudden noises, and fast, shaky camera movement. It fails, however, to move its audience.
The plot follows a group of young Americans backpacking through Europe. Main character Chris intends to head to Moscow to propose to his girlfriend, but his brother convinces the group to embark on an “extreme tour” of Pripiat first. Right from the jump, any emotional investment one may establish with the characters goes out the window: The setup is rushed, and offers brief, mostly unwanted snapshots of these vapid peoples’ lives and plans.
After exploring the abandoned city, tour guide Uri says it’s time to go after the group has a run-in with a wild – and presumably irradiated – bear. Predictably, there’s something wrong with the tour van, and the group is stuck there. After nightfall, bizarre noises are heard, and Uri, gun in hand (how convenient), goes out to see what’s wrong, only to be killed. The remainder of the movie chronicles the group’s desperate attempt to find a way out of Pripiat after discovering that radioactive, cannibalistic, emaciated creatures plague the area. It’s never quite explained what they are – survivors of the disaster? Zombies? The filmmakers don’t seem too concerned about details here.
More toxic than the radiation to which these characters are subjected is the virus known as “lack of creativity” – something “Chernobyl Diaries” has in spades. The movie is a great example of how horror is rapidly devolving into a genre that no longer knows how to define itself. With this story in particular, the actors seem to be simply going through the motions, looking more jaded than the “seen-it-all-before” teen audience for which this film is marketed.
Not only does “Chernobyl…” stubbornly adhere to its cliche-worshipping tunnel vision; it also fails to deliver any sort of element that’s actually horrifying. There are brief glimpses of promise, such as when the terrified group lock themselves in their van, surrounded by darkness. But whenever creeping dread crops up, it is quickly truncated by a predictable event or scene that exudes corniness and overkill.
Basically, it’s all a lot of sound effects and panic that amounts to nothing. Mysterious shapes and shadows. Brief flashes of deformed creatures. Shoddy scare tactics, in other words, that stopped being effective a decade ago.
The script is by Oren Peli, creator of Paranormal Activity. Unfortunately, Peli seems to think that shaking a camera and tossing around remarks like “What was that?!” and “What is this place?!” will result in oohs and aahs on the part of the audience. Instead, what we have is the latest yawn-inspiring slasher flick; a fruitless attempt to recreate the box office success of Peli’s prior film.
The unsurprising ending is positively marked only by the inclusion of Marilyn Manson’s “No Reflection” song in the closing credits. And funnily enough, that’s the highlight of the movie.
But the real kicker, the real sad flaw of the whole affair, is that it seems to exploit real tragedy without conscience. Films like Hostel, which offer commentary on human trafficking, are a different story altogether. However, there was no point to this film – no reason to use the backdrop of Chernobyl other than for shock value. Also, despite the title, there were no diaries involved, either.
If the new, desperate attempt to validate the outdated ‘slasher’ subgenre is to carelessly kick around historical ordeals, one might wonder if we’ll be seeing “The Fukushima Diaries” next…
Photo: Chernobyl reactor #4. Redrat72/Wikipedia