[Review] – Chernobyl Diaries

8 Jun

Title: Chernobyl Diaries
Year: 2012
Director: Bradley Parker
Writers: Oren Peli, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke, based on a story by Mr. Peli
Starring: Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski, Devin Kelley, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Nathan Phillips, Ingrid Bolso Berdal, Dimitri Diatchenko
MPAA Rating: R, violence, some bloody images and pervasive language
Runtime: 86 min
IMDb Rating: 5.6
Rotten Tomatoes: 21%
Metacritic: 31

Oren Peli is the guy who directed, wrote, edited, shot and pretty much did everything in Paranormal Activity, a film made with a measly $15’000 budget that went on to gross over $190 million at the worldwide box office, effectively resurrected the found-footage style of movie-making style that’s basically everywhere right now, and kick-started a huge horror-movie franchise that essentially replaced the Saw films as the yearly Halloween offering at your local theater, with the fourth Paranormal Activity film coming out this October.

Now, even though Oren Peli became a go-to guy for horror films since then, he’s mostly been on board as a producer, in all subsequent Paranormal Activity movies, as well as in last year’s Insidous (which I gave a B+ to) and creating ABC’s underwhelming (and already cancelled) TV series The River. So yeah, he’s been present since breaking out with his micro-budget success story, but mostly just supervising other projects based on his property or that want to use the same kind of aesthetic he employed so well. It won’t be until next year’s Area 51 that we see what the guy does with his sophomore directorial effort, but first we have the new film Chernobyl Diaries, which counts with him not only as a producer, but also as a writer.

The film spawned from an original story from Mr. Peli, one that focussed on six tourists who try to go for a different kind of touristic experience and hire a tour guide that will take them to the city of Prypiat, which was founded to house workers of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and that’s been a ghost town in the over twenty-five years since the Chernobyl disaster. Suffice it to say that after a short while in the abandoned city, the tourists will find that they’re stranded there, and shortly thereafter they’ll find that it’s not really all that abandoned.

I actually kind of like that whole premise, by the way, I think it had a lot of potential and the way it’s done does give it this nice sense of atmosphere that sort of works. But the fact of the matter is that as soon as we realize that these guys are stranded there and that they’re not really alone, we know the steps this film’s going to take way before it actually takes them, and that absolute lack of originality means that the attempts this film takes to scare us won’t really be that effective at all. So the film becomes kind of boring in a way, just dragging itself along, taking its time, not really giving us any good surprises, and you really wouldn’t be blamed if you actually started rooting for these guys to be killed off fast so that the film can end.

What’s worse is that it doesn’t even use the whole nuclear element all that much other than for the novelty effect of it, instead it plays out like The Cabin in the Woods would have had that film not turned the genre on its head (which it did, spectacularly; I gave it an A). You see this film behaves like every other generic horror film would, with the remote location, and the cast of pretty young things being killed off one by one as they all behave according to the rules set by the horror movie archetypes; you have the guy and his girlfriend, their photographer friend, the irresponsible brother of the boyfriend that insists on taking this “extreme” tour, and an Australian couple that comes along for the ride.

Then there’s the fact that the scares just don’t work here at all. I realize radiation is a very serious thing, but the fact of the matter is that for us to really get invested in a horror film we need to feel the immediacy of the threat that haunts our protagonists. And for the first half hour or I don’t know how long, that threat is the radiation that, on one hand, is an invisible thing that we can’t really project our fears towards, and it’s something that may make you sick, potentially very seriously so, but there’s still the fact that it may very well not, and that even if it does it will take quite a bit of time for it to do so, and it certainly won’t happen on screen. Maybe it’s because this catastrophe happened so long ago that we don’t really get super scared about it being mentioned. I just never felt the stakes were there.

Hold on, though, because it seems as though the filmmakers realized this, and that’s when they present the notion that radiation isn’t the only threat, and give us these survivors in the ghost town, which turn out to be these cannibalistic sort of mutated monsters that are just super boring. They’re boring because they look so much like other kind of threats we’ve seen in equally generic movies, and because I never really got what their deal was; sometimes they were all mysterious hanging around in the shadows all clumsy and such, and other times they seemed to really know what they were doing and were fast. I don’t know, just didn’t get them at all.

Oren Peli might have crafted one of the most fascinating horror movies of the past few years with Paranormal Activity, and I’m rather fond of the franchise and the results it’s been getting so far, but there’s just nothing even remotely original about Chernobyl Diaries, a movie that seems to have been constructed from a Build-Your-Own Horror Movie kit or something. There’s no real suspense here, no really spooky images that get seared into our brains for discussion after watching it, it’s just stuff we’ve seen done time and time again being don yet another time, with the movie thinking that by referencing an actual event in history it will be a novelty trick nice enough to make it stand out. It doesn’t.

Grade: D+

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