Chernobyl Diaries is an original story from Oren Peli, who first terrified audiences with his groundbreaking thriller, Paranormal Activity.
The film follows a group of six young vacationers who, looking to go off the beaten path, hire an "extreme" tour guide. Ignoring warnings, he takes them into the city of Pripyat, the former home to the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor, but a deserted town since the disaster more than 25 years ago.
After a brief exploration of the abandoned city, however, the group soon finds themselves stranded, only to discover that they are not alone...
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In 1986, one of the reactors in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in what was then the Soviet Union exploded, causing the worse nuclear disaster in history. The accident turned the city of Pripyat, which was founded by the workers of the plant, into a ghost town, still uninhabited to this day because of high levels of radiation. The new film from writer/producer Oren Peli (the man behind the Paranormal Activity franchise), Chernobyl Diaries, explores what would happen if tourists visited the deserted town.
A young American named Chris (Jesse McCartney from Keith) is traveling Europe with his girlfriend, Natalie (Chillerama's Olivia Taylor Dudley), and her friend Amanda (Devin Kelley from "The Chicago Code"). They head to Kiev, Russia to see Chris' brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski from the Friday the 13th reboot), who lives there. Paul sets the group up with a tour guide named Uri (professional Russian Dimitri Diatchenko) who runs what he calls an "extreme tour group," which basically means he takes tour groups into Pripyat to explore the city around Chernobyl. Although initially resistant to the plan, Chris relents after Paul and the girls all agree to go and, after an Australian couple named Michael and Zoe (Wolf Creek's Nathan Phillips and Ingrid Bolso Berdal from House of Fools) join the tour, the group sets off. After basically sneaking into the city, they have a great time exploring, but when they get back to the van they find that it has been vandalized and won't start. Forced to spend the night in the city, they soon find that they are not the only ones there. At first, it seems that they are simply being stalked by wild dogs, but before too long, they realize that the dogs are the least of their problems. They are not alone in Pripyat, and they spend the most horrifying night of their lives trying to find out who - or what - else is there, watching and stalking them.
Chernobyl Diaries is the directorial debut from visual effects artist Bradley Parker (Fight Club, Let Me In). The screenplay, written by Oren Peli along with Carey and Shane Van Dyke (Dick Van Dyke's grandsons and writers of such gems as The Day the Earth Stopped and The Sacred), is more structured and follows a more standard plotline than Peli's Paranormal Activity, even if it is just a standard survivor story. Truth be told, the setup and buildup are great; it's a creative idea with a lot of potential to be good, but it unravels somewhere around the halfway point and turns into just another mediocre horror movie.
Part of the reason why Chernobyl Diaries falls short of expectations is the characters. Not the cast; the actors all do a competent job in their parts. The characters themselves are not well developed enough for the audience to care about them. Sure, there is the revelation that Chris wants to ask Natalie to marry him in Moscow, and there is the obvious love between Michael and Zoe, but these aspects of the plot look like afterthoughts of the writers, poor attempts to humanize the otherwise generic victim archetypes. The simple fact is that the viewer has no sympathy for these kids who have illegally gone where they should have gone and have messed with things that they shouldn't have messed with.
For all the plot holes and inconsistent pacing, the look of Chernobyl Diaries is great. The film was shot on location in Pripyat and around Europe, and the locations are very cool looking. At one point, the tour group comes across an abandoned amusement park, with a broken down ferris wheel and stalled bumper cars. The fun zone sits right in the shadow of the old nuclear reactors, a haunting reminder of the reason that the town is dead. The trouble and expense that must have been incurred to secure the locations just makes the audience wish harder that the film built around them was better than it is.
Chernobyl Diaries owes a lot of its effective buildup of tension to the camera work. The film is not a found-footage faux-documentary, but the cinematography is hardly standard. Director of photography Morten SÃ¸borg (Valhalla Rising) uses handheld cameras throughout the whole movie, providing the film with a shaky, loose look that gives the impression that the camera is another member of the tour group. When the characters are walking, the camera walks with them, looking over their shoulders and swinging around to see what's in store for the group. When the setting is interior, the camera slides from face to face depending on who is talking or listening. The long, drawn out takes and voyeuristic properties of the photography are not unlike those found in modern classics like Children of Men, films that give the illusion of realism by capturing performances instead of creating them. Although the camera movement is painstakingly choreographed, its interaction with the cast of characters seems natural and unrehearsed, like a fly on the wall in the middle of the chaos. Whether it's a discussion about how to fix the van or the crossing of a rickety bridge to escape a pack of hungry dogs, the camera is in the thick of the action, much like a war correspondent's viewpoint, capturing the frustration and fear of the characters. Although not purported to be a documentary, the purposely sloppy cinematography helps Chernobyl Diaries achieve a sense of realism that aids to further the cause of a film that needs a lot of help.
Chernobyl Diaries does a pretty good job of building tension, but most of the scares are cheap and gimmicky. The isolation and helplessness of the characters is readily apparent and portrayed well by the cast, but by the time the film really gets rolling, into the third act, the attempted shocks are pretty much reduced to unintelligible screaming. The concept of the film is great and the buildup is well done, but there is no payoff that sends the audience home with what they've just seen. For such an inventive concept for a horror movie, there really is nothing new in Chernobyl Diaries. It's a lot of the same cat-and-mouse games that are a dime-a-dozen in modern horror films, and the lack of genuine thrills just gets tedious and old.
May 25, 2012