‘Chernobyl Diaries’ Review
Haven't the poor people of Chernobyl suffered enough?
A few days before I saw 'Chernobyl Diaries' I realized I hadn't seen one TV ad or trailer for it. “It's from the 'Paranormal Activities' guy – about a group of young tourists who go to visit Chernobyl,” a friend said.
“Oh, and then a bunch of radioactive zombies attack?” I asked.
“I dunno, probably.”
I've actually seen the movie and, alas, still can't give you more than an “I dunno, probably.”
While the mythos of 'Chernobyl Diaries' remains vague, the film does offer its charms. I'm not quite sure they are what opening weekend ticket buyers will have in mind, but this is my way of saying that I wasn't entirely bored for 87 minutes. Scared? No. Fascinated with the setting? Yeah, I'll give it that.
I'm old enough to remember the Chernobyl disaster, the resultant international panic and the tasteless jokes that came with it. (What has bright blue feathers and tries to get to the other side? Chicken Kiev.) For the beautiful young things in 'Chernobyl Diaries' (and more on supporting player Olivia Taylor Dudley in a moment – how do you say “va va vavoom in Ukranian?”) they probably weren't even born when the nuclear meltdown occurred.
Three friends - a dude, his soon-to-be-fiancee and their recently single chum with the words “Final Girl” tattooed on her forehead – are zipping across Europe. 'Chernobyl Diaries' begins with a nice head fake toward being another “found footage” film, but a pull back reveals that the opening collection of scenes are being viewed on the dude's older brother's iPad. They've made a pit stop in Kiev, where the older brother is living (for reasons that are never addressed.)
It is quickly established that the older brother has a thing for the newly available brunette, and the younger brother is preparing to pop the question to the blonde once they hit Moscow. (Why Moscow even though they've already been to Paris? If you can't handle a plot hole as innocuous as that, you better get out now.)
Before going to Moscow, though, they (plus an Australian guy and his Nordic girlfriend) decide to take an “extreme tour” with former special forces monster Uri – more cement than man, but charming as all hell. Please, let's all hope Dimitri Diatchenko, whose prior work is mostly in video game voice overs, gets a boost out of this film – he's a natural screen presence.
Uri's a terrific tour guide, sneaking them into the ghost city of Prypiat. This modern (1970) Soviet company town served the Chernobyl power plant and was abandoned overnight in 1986. Like a modern Pompeii it lays under dust, frozen in time. Nature has taken over and the mix of wild grass, concrete and the carcasses of “Blinky the 3-Eyed Fish” near the streams are quite effective. You can poke around Google to find haunting images and, if you were a big time horror movie producer like Oren Peli, you might think, “hey, this is a GREAT location to have radioactive zombies attack twenty-somethings!”
Who can blame him? It is a great location. So much so that, frankly, the chasing and running and shouting and masticating is far less interesting that Uri's tour! Unfortunately, once the borscht hits the fan, the movie is a great deal of uninspired chases with actors making “scared face #3.”
I am very, very susceptible to jump scares, and I only shouted once during 'Chernobyl Diaries.' The film just isn't framed in a unique way and the poor kid actors have no idea what they're doing. One of the frightened tourists, I don't have the heart to say which, is operating at a sub-high school play level here. With such uninspired shooting and a dearth of acting talent, the dialogue – no doubt written to sound “natural” - comes off as laughable. There will be cackles on opening night.
And, sadly, disappointment. I don't know how you screw up “radioactive Russian zombies” but somehow 'Chernobyl Diaries' does it. The endless racing through corridors and yelling quickly becomes monotonous, no matter how many cool, decrepit Soviet-era public spaces are shown. There is not one set piece with any complex blocking, or where anyone took the time to figure out how best to milk the tension out of a moment. Just lots and lots of running. The end is predictably unfulfilling, as has been the case with many recent studio-released horror pictures.
'Chernobyl Diaries' did inspire me to come home and read more about the Chernobyl disaster and the city of Prypiat on Wikipedia, so that I consider time well spent. I also hunted down photos of the aforementioned Olivia Taylor Dudley, a blonde bombshell of Olympian measures and for that introduction I will always hold this film in gratitude.
'Chernobyl Diaries' hits theaters on May 25th
Jordan Hoffman was the movies editor at Hearst Digital’s UGO for four years and currently contributes to SlashFilm, MTV’s NextMovie and StarTrek.com. He’s made two marginally successful independent movies, is a member of the New York Film Critics Online and was named IFC’s Ultimate Film Fanatic of the NorthEast in 2004. Follow him on Twitter at @JHoffman6.