by Dan Fields
First published May 26, 2012 by the California Literary Review
Radioactive? Yes. Waste? Not so much.
Chernobyl Diaries is not great art. Chernobyl Diaries is not important cinema. It will probably win neither awards nor memorable acclaim. What it is, though, is a robust specimen of a very particular kind of movie. It is a midnight movie. It is a drive-in flick. It is a B-movie in the most favorable sense. It was made to be seen in as crowded and rowdy a theater as possible. It aspires to nothing more clever or edifying than exactly that. It has plenty of scares, weird atmosphere, and drawn-out suspense to fill its running time. At least once, your heart will pound in anticipation of something awful. And is that not precisely what you paid for?
Many viewers already know what to expect from a story written by Oren Peli, creator of the already overtaxed Paranormal Activity series. The basic formula goes something like this:
Oh no, weird noise! Look for something in the dark… no, over here… closer… closer… see anything?… one more look… oh, I guess it’s nothing after—OHNOITSHORRIBLEHELPHELPHELP!
Paranormal Activity movies keep getting made because, no matter how much we complain, we keep going to see them. Given the profit margin, Peli would be a fool not to exhaust the franchise, at least as an executive producer. However, it is a relief to see him spin a new yarn unrelated to those annoying haunted house people. Breaking the narrative free from the shackles of the “found footage” template and spacing out the “shock” moments, as described above, make this movie much more engaging and fun.
Chris (Jesse McCartney) and Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley) are an almost-engaged couple touring Europe in a carefree twentysomething manner. In tow is their single friend Amanda. Having hit the obvious western waypoints like London and Paris, the three arrive in Kiev to pick up Chris’s expatriate older brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). After some party time in Kiev, Paul will escort them all to a grand sendoff in Moscow. Everyone is excited about Moscow.
Things take a bumpy turn when Paul surprises them with a day trip to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, or rather the adjacent ruins of Pripyat, where the workers and their families lived before the infamous meltdown.
Paul is the snappy, exuberant alpha male of the bunch. If this were Scooby-Doo – which, thank goodness, it is not – he would be Fred. Until now Sadowski’s best turn was a supporting role in The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard, though you may have seen him in She’s The Man and Live Free or Die Hard. This may not be the most impressive track record, but his energy and conviction sell this movie. His key purpose is to convince the others that a trip to Chernobyl might be a pretty neat idea. He succeeds, if only just enough to get them there. This goes for the audience as well. It sounds like a stupid premise for a movie, and perhaps it is, but once you swallow that large pill, the rest of the plot goes down pretty easily.
Accompanying Paul’s group are a pair of stereotypical backpack-across-Europe types (Nathan Phillips and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). Guided by the jovial but imposing Yuri (Dimitri Diatchenko), they all find the disaster site more interesting than they expected, though the local wildlife seems a bit too restless for comfort. There are other, more troubling signs of life in the area as well, and the tour group is all too eager to get on the road once the sun begins to set.
Except guess what? That is not going to happen. It is inevitable that nightfall will find these unhappy travelers stranded, and battling for survival in a place they do not belong, against something they did not know existed. Everything else is one form of nasty surprise or another, so let that suffice for plot summary. Be content with the phrase “headlong descent into hell.”
The cast of Chernobyl Diaries does rather well overall. They push gamely through the just-okay script as though it were brimming with Cabin In The Woods-grade wit. It certainly is not. The dialogue is maybe one or two notches above the average Final Destination script – lacking in subtlety, but nimble enough not to overwork the foreshadowing or emotional beats. Convincing naturalism is not the primary concern of a radioactive survival thriller, but despite their increasingly poor decisions prompted by fear, confusion, and – let’s face it – the demands of the story, the characters have sufficient depth for us to give a damn how things end up for them.
If you feel this movie is too thin to stand on its unremarkable script and video-game premise, you will at least find the location photography impressive. The scenes shot in and around Pripyat are stark, ominous, and eerily beautiful. The reactor towers loom like sinister giants in the distance, and the interiors are nightmarish even in broad daylight.
They may not be a very brainy bunch of tourists, but these kids certainly fight hard to stay alive. As things get worse and worse, they keep reassuring one another that everything will be grand once they get to Moscow. Not since Chekhov wrote Three Sisters has a cast of characters pined so earnestly for Moscow.
Chernobyl Diaries marks the directorial debut of Bradley Parker, second unit director and visual effects supervisor for Hammer’s stunning vampire drama Let Me In. His credited projects also include Fight Club, xXx, Peter Pan, and Glen Morgan’s remake of Willard. You might think that a movie directed by a visual effects heavy-hitter would be boiling over with slimy motion-capture monsters and gore splatters beyond the reach of ordinary physics. However, the horrors of Chernobyl Diaries are gratifyingly low-tech and shadowy. Besides transporting the cast and obtaining permission to shoot around Chernobyl, this movie cannot have cost much to make. It comes out looking lean rather than cheap, and economy is the essence of a good B-movie. Fortunately, the script does not have too many ideas for the modesty of the production to convey. You could fit the plot in all its complexity on a cocktail napkin, but in a film like this, pure entertainment value counts for everything. Having met that requirement, Chernobyl Diaries gets an “all-clear.”