Bradley Parker’s Chernobyl Diaries is like an old amusement park ride. You’ve been on that ride before, and you know what to expect, but it’s a thrill while it lasts. And so goes Diaries, with that familiar formula of taking a small group of good-looking young adults, putting them in an isolated area with little chance to escape, and letting the mayhem ensue. A fun ride, but it’s not Disneyland’sTower ofTerror.
We’re introduced to three of the characters, American tourists travelling across Europewest to east, through home video clips in the found-footage style found-footage style of writer and producer Oren Peli’s wildly successful Paranormal Activity franchise. While Diaries’ quick changes to very tight hand-held shots for the duration of the film ratcheted up the tension and heightened the sense of anxiety for some of us, for others it elicited only nausea.
The three travellers, Chris, Natalie and Amanda (played by Jesse McCartney, Olivia Dudley and Devin Kelley), finally arrive inRussia to stay with Chris’s older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). Paul convinces the three to forego a trip toMoscow, and go on an “extreme tour” to the abandoned city ofPripyat, former home to workers of theChernobyl nuclear reactor. They reluctantly agree and, along with tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) and two other tourists, couple Michael and Zoe (Nathan Phillips and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), they climb into an old van and venture, or more like sneak, into the heavily guarded and isolated city.
The first stop in Pripyat is an abandoned carnival site set up to celebrate May Day, perfectly playing into the old amusement park ride metaphor. A few odd moments roaming the city, and a ripped-out distributor cap clues them in that they aren’t alone, forcing them to spend the night. And then the fun begins.What happens next is a mash-up of Silent Hill
, The Omega Man
, The Descent
and many other films that follow the formula of attractive young adults being hunted — this time by mutant cannibals. An alternate title could have been The China Syndrome’s Hills Have Eyes
has its share of flaws. This one bothered me: At one point, the group leaves during the early morning hours to find help, but quickly stumble upon a parking lot full of cars. where they find wires to fix the van. A slight diversion by a pack of wild dogs gets them off-course, yet they don’t return until well into the night, only to find the van destroyed and those inside it missing. Where the day went isn’t fully explained. What happened to the van and the people in it is explained, literally, by found footage. It’s a disconnect that detracts from the flow.
What keeps Diaries
fresh is the cast, with solid performances all round, and in particular by Dudley, Sadowski and Diatchenko. And the location; there is something about Eastern Europe that gives the rest of us a sense of dread. From the torturously bloody and immense loss of life during the Crusades to the long arm of Hitler meeting the long arm of Stalin in WWII, with Vlad the Impaler somewhere in between, we get a great sense that life is worthless. It’s what makes Hostel
work. And the region’s history certainly helps this film as well. That, together with one of the worst nuclear disasters in modern history, the Chernobyl meltdown, the story has an authentic hook — which has also created some controversy. The charitable organization the Friends of Chernobyl Centers US has taken great offense at the movie, claiming it is insensitive to those who died, were injured or lost their homes in the disaster.But in an odd way the film may have helped the cause by shining the light on a place that most of the world seems to have forgotten, reminding us that we have known of the horrors of nuclear power long before Japan’s Fukushima meltdown.It’s a serious subtext to take from a fun horror film. Yes, fun. Chernobyl Diaries
is like a Roger Corman film: Predictable, flawed and ultimately fun.