Film Review – Chernobyl Diaries
They say there are a few rules to writing that one should follow if you want to achieve something close to success. One of the rules is to never start your story with someone waking up. Another is, if you’re going to write about dreams, only use images the audience is going to experience. When it comes to film, perhaps an unstated rule is to never begin your movie with the words, “Here we go.” The very nature of a movie is an experience, a visceral one at that. The audience already knows it’s a ride; there’s no need to reiterate it in such a fashion. From the get go, this phrase tells me the filmmakers have no faith in their audience’s ability to discern that they are on a ride; therefore, they have no faith in their audience.
Chernobyl Diaries is a film that works hard to remind its audience that it’s on a rollercoaster ride, from the opening words to a deadpan shot inside a van—pointed at the cast, arms flailing, screams abound as they descend a slope into the town of Pripyat—a shot reminiscent of many on-board rollercoaster cameras that broadcast the riders’ experience to the people waiting in line. This is horror filmmaking that’s not just by the numbers, but done so painstakingly that it never for a moment gives the audience a reason to care.
The story follows a small group of friends who are on vacation around Europe. When in Kiev visiting one of the friends’ older brother, they get an offer to tour the town of Pripyat, once home to the ill-fated workers of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The town was abandoned in the few hours that surrounded the meltdown of the fourth reactor, and has since become a ghost town. Paying an extreme tour guide, the group sneaks into Pripyat to view the empty buildings that remain in Chernobyl’s wake. Of course, once they go to leave, it turns out the distributor cap for the van has been ripped out, cords torn apart. It’s clear someone, or something, wants them to stay. From there it’s nothing but And Then There Were None net; swish.
As the characters get picked off one by one, we are presented with the film’s only compelling aspect: who or what is after them. It is Chernobyl, so thoughts of course immediately draw conclusions to radiation influence, mutations. We are shown a mutant fish rather early. However, the film presents some aspects of the possible killer as being human. The guide seems shady; he’s ex-military, works alone, and even hides evidence of possible company other than themselves being present. Unfortunately, the movie’s creators, director Bradley Parke—whose previous endeavors include being visual effects supervisor on films like Let Me In and We Own the Night—and writer/producer Oren Peli—best known for the Paranormal Activity series—rely too heavily on the mystery of the what, and the film forgets to take time to develop its characters, or create some real suspense for the situation they’re in.
What Chernobyl Diaries does do is make full use of the medium’s effect on the audience’s senses, by simply using tricks that take advantage of what the audience is experiencing. Sound is one of the most prevalent; audio tracks alienate ambient sounds, honing in on only the important things the audience needs to pay attention to in order to create tension from the audience’s expectations. Like they tell us from the beginning—it’s a ride. It’s just not a very good one, and leaves little impression once it’s over.
The cast does fine with what material they’re given; they’re mostly newcomers or bit-part actors, which works to the movie’s advantage. Most horror films, I feel, fail as suspense generators when they cast major Hollywood actors in the lead roles. The audience feels safe when Tom Cruise starts having crazy, messed up things happen to him. It’s a shame for Chernobyl Diaries that the writing is so bad that there’s really not much anyone else can do to make it something worthwhile. The direction—Parker’s first feature—is solid for the most part, though it does take a questionable turn when the choice is made as to whether or not the audience should be visually privy to the terror that is stalking our fated group.
By the end of the film, it’s never made exactly clear to the audience what is what in the mystery that is wrapped inside an enigma. Instead, a few vague impressions, some stilted dialogue, and a specific wardrobe are supposed to be enough to satisfy the audience’s curiosity. When the film reaches its penultimate moment, there’s not much that can be done to inject a current of shock. There’s little to care about, or for, so there’s little in the way of being let down once the mystery is quasi-addressed. I admit, it was an interesting premise, if for no other reason than what fun something as toxic as a story set in present day Pripyat could be. I think the downfall comes from the film’s awareness of this aspect—hoping it could rest on the laurels of its own concept.
Final Grade: D+