Chernobyl Diaries (2012)
written by: Oren Peli, Shane Van Dyke and Carey Van Dyke
produced by: Oren Peli, Brian Witten and Bradley Parker
directed by: Bradley Parker
rating: R (for violence, some bloody images, and pervasive language)
runtime: 88 min.
U.S. release date: May 25, 2012
It’s not a good sign when a) a movie doesn’t screen for critics and b) there are no advance screenings until the night before its official release date. Nothing states “this movie sucks” and “don’t waste your time” more clearly than that one-two punch. I want to say that in learning this, I’ve been able to steer clear of such an omen, since rarely has any film with such a pattern ever turned out to be good, watchable, or at the very least – pain-free. That’s obviously not the case with “Chernobyl Diaries”. I should’ve known from similar viewings of past duds, such as “Skyline” and “My Soul To Take“, that the latest horror flick from filmmaker Oren Peli (responsible for the successful “Paranormal Activity” series), would effortlessly fall into the same company. It was either morbid curiosity or questionable optimism that found me in a less-than-packed theater (theater #13 to be precise), subjecting myself to horrible acting, awful dialogue, and worst of all, a stupid and insulting story.
Well, calling it a story is kind of generous. What we have here can easily be summed up as yet another horror movie starring a group of Stupid White People (five total), void of any logic or common sense, traveling where no one in their right mind would go. If that scenario sounds familiar than you can guess what else happens – everything goes wrong, finger-pointing blaming ensues, help is miles away, they hear stuff in the dark, they leave a seemingly safe vehicle to trace the sounds they hear, grave injuries occur as they realize “something is out there” – rinse and repeat from a variety of previous B-movie clichés of the genre. Ugh. Sigh.
The movie starts out with a music video montage that catches up with the fun antics of a trio of young good-looking (of course) Americans traveling abroad in Europe. It’s an excuse to introduce the characters, Chris (Disney Channel alum, Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley, “Chillerama”) and her photographer friend, Amanda (Devin Kelley, “The Chicago Code”), by way of a shaky cam and narcissistic travel photography. So, if we have our Lazy Horror Screenwriting Checklist handy, you can cross off “young couple in love” (with a twelve year-old looking boyfriend and his blonde airhead girlfriend – who must continuously reveal her plunging neckline in order to give teen boys in the audience their jiggle requirement) and semi-cautious-yet-obligating, picture-snapping brunette babe. Right there, we have out two babe and one pretty boy requirement. Keep that Checklist handy.
Their next stop: Kiev, Ukraine to visit Chris’ big brother, Paul (Jonathan Sandowski, “The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard”) as they make their way to Moscow. It’s unclear why Paul lives in Kiev, while the others live in the States – it might have been mentioned, but I could’ve been distracted by all the wretched lines uttered. Paul is the alpha male of the group (so quick, check that off!), who decides that taking his lil bro and friends on a tour of the deserted, radioactive community of Prypiat, the town that once housed those who worked in the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. That sounds like fun, right? Surely, something you’d sign up for.
Paul sells it as “extreme tourism” as he takes them to “extreme tour guide” Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko, who played Russian Suit in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”), who “works alone” out of a small store front office that exudes reassurance. They burly guy is former Soviet military, so he must know what he’s doing. The goal is to visit the remains for a couple hours (just long enough to not be contaminated by any radiation) and return with “extreme” memories. At first, the three travelers are hesitant (ya think?), but Paul’s persuasive bravado gets the best of them.
They are joined by two backpacking lovebirds – bearded Australian, Michael (Nathan Philips, who played a backpacker in the Aussie thriller, “Wolf Creek”) and the vacant Zoe (Norwegian actress, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) – who seem completely fine with the tour, despite a military presence which turns away their van for “maintenance” reasons. “Maintenance?” asks one passenger, “But isn’t it abandoned?” When their evasive tour guide has no answer, Paul chimes in with “C’mon, bro!” reminding Uri that they paid for a tour and that’s what they want – danger or no danger. “Yeah, make it happen!” barks Michael from the back, ensuring that not only are they all ready for the tour – they are committed, yo!
Uri finds an illegal entrance into the remains and drives then around the desolate area. He stops by a river where he freaks out the gang by showing them a dried-up mutant fish (which looks like one of those singing bass fish you find at Walgreens) and then they wind up near some eerily empty housing projects, where the group can walk around and take cell phone snapshots (those reactors in the background will make great Holiday cards come December) for their loved ones back home.
As the annoyingly foreboding score informs us, something not quite right is just around the corner. It starts and continues with one unoriginal plot device after another, their van breaks down and night fall soon brings creepy sounds from outside. They could walk the thirteen miles back into town, but Uri cautions against (not that we believe that any of these kids could walk such a distance) going out at night. You think? He tells them they’ll be fine as long as they remain “in vehicle”, even though no one knows they’re there (“I work alone”) and they have no cell signals. Uri then leaves with a gun and flashlight to venture out into the now pitch-black surroundings – so much for staying in vehicle.
Are we really supposed to take any of this seriously and be legitimately frightened? Not a chance. Not with such ridiculous behavior and predictable tropes. It’s hard to feel for the mortally wounded Chris, when he stupidly goes out after Uri when they hear gunshots – what’s he really going to do? With their “not-so-extreme” tour guide gone, everyone starts to panic and blame shift, in an annoying cycle of nausea. Frightened and without resources, the panicked group search for help and run into vicious mutant hounds and (at least it seems) mutated human survivors. All this would be scary of we were actually able to see who or what was attacking the group, but director Bradley Parker (a former digital artist and visual effects supervisor, making his directorial debut) would rather make the assailants vague and indecipherable. It’s unclear whether or not that’s a deliberate “artistic” choice or the result of a budget restraint, but either way, not knowing anything about the threat (especially when we’re left to assume they were once the people who lived there) leaves the movie lacking any real threat. Of course, it would also help if we cared at all about these gallivanting American idiots.
When a movie is under 90 minutes and you find yourself bored and annoyed, wishing death to all, it’s just not a good sign. Based on a short story by Peli (who also co-produced and co-wrote), supposedly inspired by actual Chernobyl-related tours that began within the past couple of years, the only confounding mystery “Chernobyl Diaries” provides us with is how in the world it took three people to come up with this garbage screenplay. I’m still scratching my head wondering who wrote these “Diaries” in the movie?
Peli’s co-writers are brothers Shane and Carey Van Dyke (related to Dick and Jerry, but I suppose talent does skip generations) who have, between the two of them (get this) have spent several years writing B-movie knock-offs. Check out the titles in their IMDb filmography – “Transmorphers: Fall of Man”, “Titanic II” (no really!), “The Day the Earth Stopped” and, ironically, “Paranormal Entity” – all designed to capitalize (or fool moviegoers) on the popularity of legitimate blockbusters. They’re not really embarking on any new ground here though, considering this has all been done before (and better) with Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes” and its recent remake. The bleak atmosphere here could’ve been a suitable setting for a seriously unsettling examination of the disaster, but Peli and company just aren’t cut out for such a task.
There are still victims suffering from the horrible aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant meltdown, yet it’s alright to turn them into unrecognizable cannibalistic mutants. Right? What? It’s only a movie? That may be, but it’s still tacky and tasteless, the poster even says, “Experience the Fallout” – Guh!
And I’m no prude! I’m all for tasteless – as long as it’s not based on the real-life suffering of others. But Hollywood will greenlight anything (except maybe an original idea) apparently, so I guess we can expect a horror movie based on the survivors of 9-11. On the 20th anniversary of that tragic event, hundreds of survivors are mysteriously called back to Ground Zero and are then turned into flesh-eating zombies that terrorize Manhattan. Sounds golden!
RATING: zero stars