Dir. Bradley Parker, USA, 2012, 86 mins.
Review by Adam Hollingworth
Do you remember the old Jimmy Carr joke about the Chernobyl Fallout incident? To paraphrase, it ran along the lines of this: “It’s been twenty five years since the nuclear radiation disaster at Chernobyl….am I the only one surprised that there are still no superheroes!” Well, in Bradley Parker and writer Oren Peli’s new film Chernobyl Diaries there are still no superheroes rising from the abandoned dilapidated Russian ghost town, but there are some disappointingly standard zombies, or rather rabid radiation poisoned humans to be specific.
The film opens with a home-movie style montage featuring four Americans travelling across Europe: brothers Chris and Paul (McCartney and Sadowski), Chris’ girlfriend Natalie (Dudley) to whom he plans to propose in Moscow, and her friend Amanda (Kelley). In a change to their travelling plans, Russian-speaking Paul convinces the group to indulge in a day of adventure tourism in which former marine Uri (Diatchenko) will drive them around the now empty township of Chernobyl. Accompanied by backpackers Zoe and Michael (Berdal and Phillips), the group enters Chernobyl via a woodland dirt path having been turned away from the main checkpoint by the army, and proceed to inspect the creepy emptiness of the town. However, when they get back to Uri’s van they find themselves stranded in Chernobyl for the night, with the van’s battery broken and no-one aware of their location. Worse still, over the course of twenty four hours the group discovers that not everything was killed by the nuclear radiation fallout, with crazed animals and far worse slowly closing in on them.
There are numerous things in Chernobyl Diaries worthy of noting. Firstly, in a stark rejection of the claustrophobic feel most horror films aspire towards, this film adopts the idea of a large abandoned township to create an opposing sense of agoraphobia, which is exploited equally effectively by the director in both darkness and light. The use of Chernobyl as a precise location adds a real-life horror into the mix that allows the filmmakers to avoid time-consuming exposition explaining the nature of the terror the characters are beset by, and supports the novel premise of Euro-tripping backpackers, whose fatal meandering from the beaten path is less contrived in the context of an ill-advised tangent from their city break adventures. In short, these young Americans don’t go looking for trouble in the way most youthful archetypal victims do, though more could have been made of the very real and very frightening radiation dangers still surrounding Chernobyl, which might have rendered the film’s choice of the area more intelligent and justifiable as the setting of a routine monster horror. Nonetheless, there is an imaginative use of various demented, in some cases mutated, animals to provide the early threats to the group, which allows the film to generate some grippingly tense suspense sequences and truly jumpy shock moments.
This early promise is compromised as soon as the expected villainous hoards begin to materialize, and the film soon degenerates into a bog standard zombie-slasher which abandons true terror for frantic and hysterical chase sequences. Though the use of space is consistently impressive throughout the film, a late attempt at a pseudo-political twist falls wide of the mark, and comically hearkens back to an age of Cold War paranoia in which Americans always felt the Russians were hiding something nasty, and the film’s audio-visual onslaught becomes irritating rather than scary. Most disappointingly of all, the seven characters featured in the film are lazily generic and less than one dimensional. The acting is fine considering none of the featured players has anything to work with, and the characters are uniformly devoid of personality or depth, much reducing the level of jeopardy we feel for them. Oddly, the film spends a considerable amount of time with the four American teens on their travels and on their jaunty through Chernobyl before panic sets in, and so the fact that screenwriter Oren Peli created ample time and space for character development, then failed to follow through on this promise, is utterly unforgivable.
Chernobyl Diaries has a few good scares in it, and boasts a tone and use of locales that is slightly different from the norm, but its promise is short lived and we very quickly find ourselves in familiar territory where the handling of genre staples has a wearying feel of being business as usual.