American tourists make the mistake of, um, travelling outside the States’ borders . . .
STARRING: Jonathan Sadowski, Devin Kelley, Jesse McCartney, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Nathan Phillips, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Dimitri Diatchenko
2012, 90 Minutes, Directed by: Brad Parker
Here are some famous last words for you: “Who’s coming with Paul to Chernobyl?”
Of course, Chernobyl Diaries offers a few more, mostly of the usual horror variety, e.g., “I’m coming back for you,” “What was that,” “We need to go find [insert name of a character],” etc., etc.
However there’s something about the naïve simplicity of that single line that sums up the reason we watch the movie, not with a sense of impending dread, but with a sort of morbid curiosity . . .
It’s not really a question of who’s going to Chernobyl; of course they are all going. The real questions are in what order and how they will all die.
There are enough scenes of characters talking about their lives and reacting with what passes for emotion here (mostly wide eyes and looks of severe constipation) to truly believe that screenwriters Oren Peli and Carey and Shane Van Dyke had such intentions in mind for the material, but that’s how it comes across. We take what we can get when it comes to movies about a group of people doing dumb things and being killed off one by one.
What we get from first-time director Bradley Parker’s movie is a competently crafted horror movie that broods with atmosphere and actually has the patience to play with the timing of its moments of startling events. You know the ones: The camera lingers on something—a character’s face, a long hallway, a shadow in the distance—and we count down with near-perfect precision when something or someone will pop into frame to scare the bejesus out of our future victims.
Parker doesn’t settle for routine. We might start counting the beats after a character hears a noise off-screen, but, after a while, nothing happens. That’s when our minds begin to imagine possibilities. That’s when we might actually start to feel a little anxious about what’s in store for these poor saps who thought a day-long excursion to a nuclear disaster site was a good idea. Or at least we would if we cared about them . . .
Obviously, it’s Paul’s (Jonathan Sadowski) idea. He’s an American expatriate living in Kiev. His brother Chris (Jesse McCartney), Chris’ girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and her friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) have come to visit him during their whirlwind tour of Europe. (Parker plays with the expectation that this will be another “found footage” movie in the opening travelogue montage before switching to a traditional narrative.)
Paul has heard of an “extreme tour guide” named Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) who takes adventurous folks to places off the beaten path. Paul figures they will all love it (especially Amanda, who’s such an expert photographer that she need only briefly stop and snap a picture without any setup). Joining them are Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) for no other reason than to up the inevitable body count.
On their way, Uri gives them a brief history lesson: in 1986, one of the reactors at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, sending out radioactive material. The residents of the nearby city of Prypiat, which was built specifically for the plant’s workers and their families, abandoned their homes. No one has lived there for the past 25 years, and only recently has anyone been allowed in the city. Uri insists they will be safe there as they will only be staying for a few hours.
Things don’t quite turn out that way, and on their tour of Prypiat they find strange things. The river is full of mutated fish with large mouths and sharp pointy teeth. The movie goes so far as to introduce a rickety, old wooden bridge going across said lake, but, if one thinks it only stands to reason there will be a mutant-fish attack, one would, unfortunately, be wrong. Ravenous dogs are appearing in the city. When Uri turns the corner of a hallway in a deserted apartment complex and the camera holds for a long stretch of time, the group is treated to probably the last thing they expected. For that and a couple of other moments, one must feel let down when the big reveal in two scenes turns out to be nothing more than falling dust.
The screenplay follows a routine path. Characters go off on their own and don’t return. Threats appear, and the survivors must run for their lives or hide in the shadows. The primary menace comes in the form of things that seem to be human although we never really get a decent look at them. For all the restraint of the scenes building up to the climax, that sequence quickly becomes a repetitive exercise of shaky handheld camera movements, screams, shouts and really bad ideas. (Let’s just say, despite possessing a warning system, they wind up in the last place anyone near Chernobyl would probably want to be.)
Chernobyl Diaries isn’t necessarily scary, but one can appreciate Parker’s deliberate pacing. In theory, the movie should work better than it does, but, again, we take what we can get with this sort of stuff.