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Chernobyl Diaries (2012)
Movie Reviews

Chernobyl Diaries (2012)

The atmosphere is right, but when it comes to plot, characterization, and even basic logic, everything feels either too by-the-book or annoyingly underdeveloped.

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The problem is twofold. On the one hand, when you see as many movies like Chernobyl Diaries as I have, you tend to develop a feel for them; you become accustomed to the pacing and editing techniques and know when to cover your ears, squint your eyes, and sink into your chair in preparation for a popout scare. When the moment has passed, disappointment sets in, for the scare was an unrelated throwaway gag that doesn’t advance the plot. Its sole purpose is to get the audience to scream and then titter with nervous relief. It does sort of make you wonder, seeing as most audiences have long been aware of these manipulative cinematic tactics. I do, of course, respond to the scares I don’t see coming, but respond even better to silence and suspense. No one appreciates a good, slow build up anymore. It’s all about immediate gratification.

On the other hand, I probably would have forgiven Chernobyl Diaries its threadbare clichés if they had been applied to a plot worthy of them. It begins as a traditional but technically competent thriller, with decently performed stock characters in a manufactured situation. As the film moves forward, its quality gradually declines, eventually relying too heavily on shaky handheld cameras and implausible character quirks. By the end, we’re broadsided with an arbitrary and poorly developed turn of events. Something might have come of it had it not been thrown in quite literally at the last minute. The sudden and ridiculous nature of the ending could easily rival the convention of it all being a dream. It’s hard to imagine that this came from the imagination of Oren Peli, the writer and director of the original Paranormal Activity.

The film is not a found footage mockumentary, although there are moments when characters – and, by extension, the audience – look at footage shot on someone else’s camera. There are two distinct scenes like that. One is the opening montage, before the terror has started. The other is much later on, when two unfortunate individuals are left in a dead van while everyone else is out looking for help. Other moments make ample use of an omniscient Queasy Cam as people wander through dark corridors holding flickering flashlights. There’s a lot of calling out for people that either aren’t there or already dead (or both), plenty of screaming and crying, and vague silhouettes of things that go bump in the night. There are also many instances in which characters are suddenly grabbed and pulled into the shadows or out of sight altogether. Their screams tell us everything we need to know.

We meet Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and her friend Amanda (Devin Kelley), a photographer. While vacationing across Europe, they make a stop in Kiev, where Chris reunites with his brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), who seems to have left America for good. It seems Paul was always the more adventurous of the two, and so it comes to pass that he strikes a deal with an extreme tourist guide named Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), who offers to drive them to the city Pripyat, which is located directly next to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site. Because of its proximity, the entire city had to be abandoned. Paul thinks this will be a fun adventure. Chris thinks it’s just another one of his brother’s reckless endeavors. Any guesses as to who’s in the right frame of mind?

Along the way, they pick up two more foreign tourists, an Australian and a Norse (Nathan Phillips and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). When they arrive in Pripyat, they find a post-apocalyptic landscape, where steel and concrete buildings have been overtaken by tall grasses and wild trees. Abandoned cars sit in lots, caked with dirt and dust. Apartment units are littered with tattered, broken possessions that couldn’t be collected in time. Much to Uri’s surprise, although it should be noted that he may know more than he’s letting on, animals are more active than they once were. Scum-coated ponds teem with mutant fish. Wolves greedily consume carcasses, only to spot the people and chase after them. Even a bear makes an unexpected appearance.

It gets dark. Uri’s van dies. A noise, sounding very much like a crying baby, is heard in the distance. Uri goes out to investigate. So too does Chris. Off in the distance, Uri fires his gun. Chris comes running back with a badly injured leg. “They got him!” he screams. Some volunteer to go looking for help. They go back into dark buildings, only to have dangerous brushes with … hulking presences largely hidden in shadow. We have no real idea of what they are until the end of the movie, at which point an “explanation” is nonchalantly thrown in for good measure. The atmosphere of Chernobyl Diaries is right, but when it comes to plot, characterization, and even basic logic, everything felt either too by-the-book or annoyingly underdeveloped. Given the infamous Chernobyl landmark, you’d think someone would have bothered to lend more weight to something as basic as radiation exposure.

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Warner Bros. Pictures


About the Author: Chris Pandolfi