Oren Peli, he of the found footage Paranormal Activity horror franchise, wisely decided to expand his horizons…somewhat. With shared producer and screenwriting credits, Chernobyl Diaries, from earlier this year, can be considered part of Peli’s oeuvre. Co-producer Bradley Parker served as the film’s director, in his first effort helming a film after a career in visual effects and some second unit work.
Set in the Ukraine, Chernobyl Diaries is the story of a small group of young, ridiculously attractive western tourists who hire an extreme tour guide in Kiev to give them a tour of the town of Pripyat.
Pripyat is an interesting place. Once upon a time, around twenty-five years ago, Pripyat was a town with a population of around 50,000 people. Carved by the Soviet Union from the rural landscape north of Kiev, Pripyat was built in 1970 to house workers and families for the newly built Chernobyl nuclear power plant just down the road. Of course, things went wrong there one night in 1986, and the town had to be evacuated. To this day, it’s a ghost town, slowly being swallowed by the surrounding woods. No one is allowed to live there, but Ukrainian companies do offer tours, so the place does get regular visitors.
As a locale for a movie, Pripyat is perfect. People can’t get enough of abandonment and decay. It’s fascinating to gaze upon societal detritus writ large in the form of empty factories or shuttered hospital complexes, giant housing blocks or even military bases that were doomed by budget cuts. And while we don’t think about these places often, we are surrounded by them. A metropolitan area like New York, where I live, is rich hunting ground for those individuals who find beauty in crumbling buildings. Just search Google for “abandoned new york” or “urban exploration nyc” and a user can get lost for hours in thousands upon thousands of photographs taken by people who crawled through the rubble.
Horror films like Chernobyl Diaries tap into this fascination we have with abandoned places, and, more importantly, the fear we harbor, as well.
So Pripyat is perfect. Except Chernobyl Diaries wasn’t filmed in Pripyat. It was filmed in Hungary and Serbia. Pripyat is still hot with radioactivity, so that’s understandable. Either way, Parker’s location scouts did a hell of a job. The fake Pripyat serves.
Upon arriving at a military checkpoint on their way to Pripyat, the film’s little tour group is told that the town is closed for the day due to ‘maintenance.’ Yuri (Dimitri Diatchenko), the tour guide, knows a back way in, so the group continues on. Only now, no one knows they are in the town. If they get in trouble, no one will be around to help. As expected, trouble ensues. The group find themselves stranded in the town overnight. Yuri is killed, conveniently ridding the cast of the one member that doesn’t fit in with horror tropes, and the film is off and running. But what exactly is happening? It’s not all that clear, just that the cast is getting picked off one by one à la Screwed films. At first, the danger facing the group seemed to be wild dogs. But that’s not scary enough. So it became people of some sort. A viewer is left to infer a lot. The tour group is being stalked by dangerous people, in the shadow of the worst nuclear power disaster in history, so…mutants? When we finally get a good look at one of the bad guys, mutants is the winner. Our little group of survivors is being stalked by nuclear mutants. And I couldn’t care less.
It seems all the work in Chernobyl Diaries went to finding a cool place to shoot. The film looks great, but the story is rote and failed to make me care about the characters in any way. As a matter of fact, I felt like this film was a failure from the opening scene, when we met the four main characters that comprise the heart of the tour group. Horror flicks have been putting young, pretty people in danger now for decades. It’s one of the most common clichés in the business, and is used in ready fashion by the worst, most uninspired shitfests that production companies can come up with. And there they are, four plastic people showing up on screen right when the film begins, and it tells a viewer all they need to know about how serious of a film this is. Always give a film a chance, which is why I sat through this mess, but it turned out my instincts were right. The lack of originality in everything from casting through plot doesn’t point to the filmmakers failing in their imagination. Rather, it reeks of laziness, and shows disrespect for the tastes of the audience. This film thinks its audience is stupid. This film stinks. This film is worse than Alien: Resurrection, a film that absolutely hated its audience.