I saw the Chernobyl Diaries the other day with Murry, a film that I was looking forward to seeing because, as I commented in my monthly trailer review, it looked like a promising proposition. After all who could resist finding out what radioactive horrors lurk in the shadows between abandoned Ukrainian apartment blocks?
So the plot; boyfriend and girlfriend Chris and Natalie along with newly single Amanda travel to Russia to meet with Chris’s brother Paul expecting a traditional tour of Moscow only to be convinced into going on an extreme tourist trip to the abandoned city of Pripyat. They are joined on the tour by two more tourists, couple Michael and Zoe, and Ukrainian tour guide Uri. Uri’s set up is not exactly legit, his van is run down with no seat belts and he is unable to convince the guards that patrol the rout into the radiation affected area to let them past. The group drive in through a back route meaning that no one else now knows where they are. (convenient) They explore the river, but don’t spot the hungry mutated Piranha like fish, then there look through the abandoned apartment blocks. We are let to believe that they are not alone, that there might be both wild animals and humans living here. The group intend to leave before it gets dark but when they arrive back at the van the engine wont start possibly due to sabotage. After various tedious arguments about what to do Uri (who reveals that he has brought a gun along) eventually walks off to get help, Chris chases after him. At this point as they disappeared around a bend and we in the audience wait to hear predictable gunshots. The boys run off to help, Chris is dragged back with a mangled leg, and we are told that Uri has been dragged away by something. From this point on the characters spend most of there time running about through abandoned locations and getting picked off one by one.
The film started out well, (ish) putting aside an opening sequence of video diary style clips of the American tourists visiting various typical European cities set to the Supergrass classic ‘We Are Young,’ Murry was disgusted with this particular sequence. I think they were going for the whole The Rules of Attraction (Roger Avary, 2002) thing (included here for your viewing pleasure: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsgcsPW34VE&feature=related ) but it did not quite come off. There were a few opening set up sequences where the characters discussed their relationships to one another and discussed going on the trip, all with terrible dialogue. Despite all of this I thought Chernobyl still seemed promising at this point. Mainly because I was thinking about how I did not think much of the dialogue at the start of Wolf Creek (Greg Mclean, 2005) when I first saw it but by the end of the film I was really invested in the characters and what might happen to them. Then creepily Nathan Philips turned up playing Michael the Australian tourist, who actually played the main male part in Wolf Creek.
Some genuine tension was built up while the gang explored the ruins, and while they try to fix the van after the first attack on Chris and Uri where the visual style is close and claustrophobic. Then it all starts to fall apart. When daylight comes Natalie stays behind in the van with Chris who is unable to walk (There is a frankly embarrassing scene where he pulls out an engagement ring and tries to propose to her). The others go in search of help. They come across a huge car park filled with abandoned cars and manage to find a lead to fix the van with. However they are then chased off by wild and possibly radioactive dogs. Somehow this little escapade seems to take all day and by the time they get back to the van, the van has been destroyed and Chris and Natalie are gone. Despite the fact that the van being destroyed has just rendered most of the previous action pointless, this could still have been a tense scene where the characters have just lost their friend/brother and we could have continued to find out what creatures were out there targeting them. But instead they find a phone recording of how the van got destroyed. We are then treated too what can only be described as one of the most hilariously bad and distracting found footage style scenes I have ever witnessed. The tension was then ruined for the remainder of the film.
Some of the Ukrainian locations are beautiful and poetic with a ritualistic urban Gothic edge. One of the only possible reasons for watching this film again would be to study what are enviable locations for any horror film maker. It is such a shame that these locations aren’t used to better effect. Another disappointing element are the humans that live in the fallout. Director Oren Peli, who previously directed Paranormal Activity (2007), went to great lengths to disguise the look of the people of the fallout (as I shall call them) and then when we did catch glimpses of them towards the end they just seem to be a bunch of bald Ukrainian men. Not to mention the final ending itself which was hugely disappointing. I would not go so far as to say that it was a bad movie because believe me there is so much worse out there. I can safely say however that it was not a good movie because within only a few days of watching Chernobyl Diaries a large number of elements have begun to fade away into the crevices of my mind, and one of the tell tail results of seeing a good horror film is that you will be struck by particular elements which will stick with you. Haunting you if you will. And if I compare Chernobyl Diaries with Oren Peli’s other major film Paranormal Activity it reveals to me that the main problems with Chernobyl are script and acting. One of the reasons Paranormal was so effective as a low budget horror was its seeming use of improvisation which made the dialogue more naturalistic, and helped the audience to believe in the action. I’m not a huge fan of Paranormal (although I did particularly enjoy 3) it resonated with a large number of people and so it is a shame that Chernobyl falls short in this respect. It certainly wont take Chernobyl Diaries a hundred years to degrade.