Saturday at the Movies: Chernobyl Diaries

Chernobyl Diaries is the latest “found footage” style horror flick to hit the big screen. Released this week to theatres, it stars a cast not worth mentioning led by director Bradley Parker in a significantly forgettable debut. The only notable name in the movie is Oren Peli, the screenwriter behind the Paranormal Activity Movies – and from watching the flick, it’s painfully clear that this movie was sold based on Peli’s previous efforts.

chernobyl diariesChernobyl Diaries tells the predictable story of a group of young American tourists who, desperate for adventure, place their trust in a foreign adventure tour guide who offers to take them to Pripyat. Pripyat gained notoriety when it was flagged as a ‘safe’ zone near the Chernobyl reactor; tourists began to come in just to see the town’s state of abandonment, since being evacuated suddenly during the disaster.

The allure of seeing this authentically creepy historical artifact sucked me in to this movie just as the hapless victims are sucked in to the contrived plot. I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum but really, I think you already know exactly how Chernobyl Diaries plays out.

Intrigued by the opportunity to visit Pripyat and get up close with the Chernobyl site, the American tourists – 2 girls, 2 guys, 2 brothers, 2 in love, 2 single, just to keep the mundane-horror formula balanced – meet up with Uri, sketchy ex-Ukranian militia. With such a “well rounded” cast, how could the movie not go well?

The adventure starts off with great promise, as the group ventures in to the Ukranian countryside but is stopped at a military check point due to some sort of strange operation. It’s easy to become intrigued with the movie early on, as the story is purposefully vague and there is something unnerving about the Pripyat area on its own. Careful though, any early intrigue is just setting you up for a bigger fall. This movie seemed to borrow from a lot of build generated by other stories… Resident Evil was the first that came to mind as the abandoned Pripyat is revealed.

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Once the group sneaks inside Pripyat, it isn’t long until the movie blows its proverbial load; by finding a dead ‘fish monster’ by the side of the lake the movie opens the flood gates for any kind of mutagenic mayhem to ensue. In something reminiscent of The Host, the monster seems like a promising (if somewhat predictable) story line… which is never picked up again.

As if realizing its premature reveal, the movie tries to throw the audience off by having the group next encounter some fairly ‘normal’ problems… like being charged by a massive bear, attacked by packs of ravenous dogs, and having their starter cables mysteriously ‘chewed’ to pieces. But since none of these elements are ever really strung together, or explained in the context of the mutant, these seem like distraction tactics more than story elements.

chernobyl diaries

The movie plays out this way – horrific discovery, run away with no explanation – so much so that I really wonder if any cohesive story was ever written. Oren Peli likely made this movie happen, but I have a feeling that Paranormal Activity presented a rather easy scripting challenge. Big movies require characterization, dialogue, and a sequential plot that ideally fits together; or maybe not.

In the end, Chernobyl Diairies manages to fit in a wide array of random spooky pieces, and I have tried to pin point where each was borrowed from. Abandoned nuclear disaster site could fit in to a lot of movies, but with the dogs especially Resident Evil is still on my mind. A number of jerky camera sequences shot in the dark as the group runs in terror seemed straight out of Blair Witch Project, the original found footage masterpiece. Hordes of mutant humans, some who cry like babies and others who from behind look like 3 year olds but never turn to face you, ripped from countless prior horror films. And then, again at random, the group stumbles upon an underground and active medical facility, reminiscent of LOST right down to the random unexplained plot arc.

You’ll notice I’ve spent little to no time exploring the characters, and have made no effort to sequence the plot. There’s no point – everything is ultimately interchangeable once the first mutant fish thing is discovered. The only scares you’ll get out of Chernobyl Diaries are the cheap ‘jump in your seat’ sudden flashes, and the overwhelming fear that the movie industry is doomed. I’d wager 90% of you can guess the outcome of this movie, but just in case you’re curious to know… the single, female lead in the group survives, only to be picked up by the Ukranian Military and ‘thrown to the mutants’ to prevent her from ever telling her story. Slow… sarcastic… clap.

In this sadly predictable film, there is one major highlight – the footage from the Pripyat area dominates the first 15-20 minutes and it is beautiful. It strikes me as I write this that Chernobyl Diaries has really done the town an injustice. I find nothing particularly offensive about creating a fictional horror story about the Chernobyl disaster or the town of Pripyat; but to make such a bad movie that so many will probably is just despicable. I recommend watching one of the independent documentaries on the area if you’re interested.

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Of course if you just want a scare-happy, senseless horror flick with no real story… try Chernobyl Diaries. If you were looking for Paranormal Activity or better, I think I’ve successfully vaporized your hope.

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