Judge Gordon Sullivan wasn't scared on his Chernobyl trip, until he saw the snack stand prices.
Experience the fallout
As a number of writers have pointed out—in this case, I'm thinking of Steven Shaviro and Warren Ellis—science fiction exists sometimes to show us how the future intrudes on the present. In that way, the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear facility was already predestined, thanks to the work of novels (like Roadside Picnic) and films (like Tarkovsky's Stalker). There are so many intersections between the media and the actual existence of people affected by the disaster that wiped out the town of Prypiat overnight that it's difficult to untangle what began as fiction and what didn't. What this really points to, though, is that the abandoned town of Prypiat and the Chernobyl disaster itself provide the kind of startling stories that meld the most outlandish, post-apocalyptic science fiction and the coldest, hardest facts of science. It's the kind of backdrop that encourages us to think about humanity's place on the planet, our reliance on nuclear power, and nature's ability to overcome. It's the kind of backdrop that deserves better than the third-rate The Hills Have Eyes knockoff, Chernobyl Diaries.
Facts of the Case
For those who missed the memo, the Chernobyl disaster occurred when the Chernobyl nuclear facility (just outside of Prypiat, in the Ukraine, then part of the USSR and under direct Soviet authority). There was a meltdown and the town was evacuated and essentially sealed off. Because we know little about how nuclear radiation affects wildlife (and human life, for that matter), the area was off limits to pretty much anybody. Now, radiation levels have stabilized enough that human visitation—though not habitation—is a possibility. Chernobyl Diaries takes this fact, and builds a typical tourist narrative out of it. A six-pack of (mostly American) tourists decide to go on an "extreme" tour of Prypiat. Then their van's electrical system gets trashed and they're stuck overnight—but they're apparently not alone.
One of the reasons that The Hills Have Eyes worked is because it set its little band of crazed mutants in the Nevada desert, which is essentially a tabula rasa in terms of stories. There are no tales of crazy mountain men (unlike Appalachia) or really enough time for people to have settled there to even get inbred, so the idea of mutants out there had some real scare to it.
The idea there are spooky creatures in the town near Chernobyl is so head-smackingly obvious, so boneheadedly "duh" that any film trying to tackle horror in this arena already faces an uphill battle in scoring scares. Don't get me wrong. There are scares to be had in a film set near Chernobyl—just not in this one. Rather than relying on the terrain of an abandoned city, or the creep of being in an abandoned city as a tourist, Chernobyl Diaries uses all the same old clichés we're used to seeing in every other horror movie full of mutants in the dark. The same lame 30 minutes of nonsense setup before anything gets even remotely interesting, the same 30 minutes of wandering around in the scary place getting jumped at, and the same 30 minutes running for their lives before the inevitable survivor meets her fate.
Hate on a film like Hostel all you want; at least it had something to say about tourism, about sex tourism especially, and about the way that money gets funneled from the Western countries to Eastern Europe. Despite focusing on a town evacuated by nuclear disaster, Chernobyl Diaries has nothing interesting to say on the subject, nor on anything else for that matter. It's just one "seen that before" scene after another in a plot that could have been predicted by anyone whose seen a horror movie in the last forty years.
The film tries to skate by because Oren Peli (of Paranormal Activity fame) helped produce it. Though the film doesn't rely on his found-footage style, its single-camera feel tries to borrow the energy of found footage and reality shows to put the audience in the mix. It doesn't really work, and comes off as more of a gimmick than anything else (though, admittedly, a much less annoying gimmick than Peli's other films).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At least Chernobyl Diaries (Blu-ray) is okay. The 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded image looks like it was shot on the consumer-level camera that it likely was shot on. That means detail isn't amazing, colors are muted, and the blackness the image is often shrouded in isn't as inky as the best film. However, all of these are artistic choices rather than flaws in the transfer. The DTS-HD 5.1 track, however, is a masterpiece. Whatever atmosphere the film can conjure is explained by the subtle use of the surrounds, and the dialogue is well-balanced and clear.
Extras, however, are a bit of a letdown. There's a promo for Uri's extreme tourism, a bad alternate ending, and a short "viral video" on the Chernobyl disaster. A DVD version of the film and a code for an Ultraviolet digital copy are also included.
To be fair to the film, if you're only looking for a popcorn horror flick that will provide a few jump scares and some new backdrops for the usual mutant-horror kills the interlopers narrative, then Chernobyl Diaries will fit the bill rather nicely. There's also something a bit interesting about the way the film is shot. An opening montage of video ostensibly filmed by our main character en route to Ukraine then becomes what amounts to the kind of single-camera setup we're used to seeing from reality television. However, during an early jump scare, the camera is startled, too, as if the operator didn't expect the effect. This weird, disembodied camera is kind of cool, though it's probably not enough to make the film worth watching.
As a one-time rental during a horror drought, Chernobyl Diaries (Blu-ray) might deliver the goods if you squint hard enough. For anyone interested in quality horror or a flick that does something interesting with a fascinating bit of geography, this is not the place to look. Though the disc's audiovisual presentation supports the film's look and sound, the lack of extras makes this hard to recommend for more than a rental even to fans.
The fallout is that Chernobyl Diaries is guilty.
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