***1/2 (out of 5)
May 25, 2012
Jesse McCartney as CHRIS
Jonathan Sadowski as PAUL
Olivia Dudley as NATALIE
Devin Kelley as AMANDA
Nathan Phillips as MICHAEL
Ingrid Bolsø Berdal as ZOE
Dimitri Diatchenko as URI
Directed by: Brad Parker
BY KEVIN CARR
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Any movie that begins with idiot twentysomethings taking an unsanctioned tour of Chernobyl has to be great, right? After all, the movie begins with stupid people making stupid decisions, and that’s the heart and soul of a good horror movie. I mean, who wants to see a horror movie with smart characters making brilliant decisions? No one would because it would be over in about thirty seconds.
Like any good slasher, cautionary tale or lost-in-the-woods type of horror film, the movie rests on the shoulders of people taking stupid pills throughout the film. Not only does this give them reason to face the horrible things that are coming, but it gives us solace in hoping for their demise, at the very least from a Darwinian perspective.
In this sense, “Chernobyl Diaries” works so well. After clubbing their way through Kiev, our four main characters decide to engage in “extreme tourism” and visit Pripyat, the city nearest the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. And to give the audience either a chuckle or an education, the characters take a few moments to chat about what happened at Chernobyl. (I felt this explanation was meant at least to bring up to speed the types of people who proudly tweet that they didn’t know the Titanic was a real ship or had no idea who Paul McCartney is.)
When they gang reaches their destination, they find a deserted town which is only occasionally overrun by wild dogs and other dangerous animals. However, when they discover their van isn’t working, they must wait out the night and hope to not fall victim to the mysteries of the town.
Produced by Oren Peli, the man behind the “Paranormal Activity” films, “Chernobyl Diaries” threatens at first to be found footage with a handheld travelogue of the characters’ journey thus far. Soon, director Brad Parker pulls us out of the handheld nausea and moves into a modern cinéma vérité style, similar to how “District 9” made the transition. This is refreshing because not only are the camera angles slightly less haywire, there is also no need to justify the camera’s existence throughout the movie.
Still, I don’t suggest sitting in the front row of the film. There’s quite a bit of shakycam; it just seems minimized because it’s not ostensibly shot by a drunk teenager.
“Chernobyl Diaries” doesn’t necessarily go down any new paths. It just takes place in a new location. By setting the film in the abandoned Russian city, the film gives us a fresh take on a relatively standard plot. This adds to some mystery of what exactly is out there threatening the characters, paranormal or not.
The setting makes for a creepy film with plenty of atmosphere and jump-scares. (And reportedly, some of the scenes were actually shot on location in Pripyat.) Not only are the protagonists in danger of being attacked by wild animals and the mysterious figures in the shadows. They are also in danger of melting down themselves due to the residual radiation of the Chernobyl meltdown from 1986. There’s quite a few things coming after them, and that kept things lively.
The filmmakers show an understanding of the genre, not sensationalizing violence or making a straight exploitation movie. There’s not a lot of gore or event overt violence on screen, though it doesn’t shy away from the idea. Like the “Paranormal Activity” films, it relies on suspense and the use of cinematography, light and shadow to create an eerie atmosphere.
Finally, there’s some nice nods to other classic horror films like “The Hills Have Eyes” and “Night of the Living Dead.” I wasn’t expecting much from this film, but I enjoyed the ride.