by Steve Habrat
A few years ago, I happened to catch an episode of Sy-Fy’s Destination Truth, the reality show where obnoxious douche bag Josh Gates hunts down paranormal entities and other beasties around the world. In the episode, the extremely unfunny Gates and his crew traveled to Ukraine to investigate the ghosts of the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. The episode claimed that many of the guards who man the multiple checkpoints into the abandoned city have seen ghostly apparitions and various other creepy things that you’d most likely not want to see in the dark. The episode did catch a handful of “evidence” and whether it is authentic or not is anyone’s guess, but I will say that what the group supposedly caught was pretty unsettling. It’s hard for me to believe that a paranormal reality show with an irritating host could actually creep me out more than director Bradley Parker’s new horror throwaway Chernobyl Diaries but that’s the truth. Chernobyl Diaries has plenty of atmosphere, enough to pass out to a slew of other lame Hollywood spookfests, but the lack of any character development, sharply written dialogue, and a payoff that seems like it was ripped off from The Hills Have Eyes contaminate what could have been a decent little horror movie. At least we get a free tour of a fake Pripyat complete with lots of blood!
Chernobyl Diaries introduces us to Chris (Played by Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Played by Olivia Taylor Dudley), and their friend Amanda (Played by Devin Kelley). While on a tour of Europe, the group stops by Kiev, Ukraine, to visit Chris’s brother Paul (Played by Jonathan Sadowski), who is delighted by their visit. The group goes out clubbing and doing things that the kids in Hostel did way back in 2006. After a night of boozing, Paul asks the group if they have ever heard of “extreme tourism” and then asks if they are familiar with the Chernobyl disaster. The group mumbles that they are somewhat familiar with it but they don’t seem too sure (Kids today! Tsk, tsk.). After meeting up with their sketchy tour guide Uri (Played by Dimitri Diatchenko) and Australian backpacking couple Zoe (Played by Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and Michael (Played by Nathan Phillips), the group piles into a rusty Mystery Machine-esque van and heads for the abandoned city of Pripyat. Uri finds an unguarded back way in to the quarantined city and begins exploring the radiated ruins. When the group goes to leave, the van refuses to start, stranding the tourists in the thick darkness that falls at night. The group soon discovers that they are not alone in Pripyat and they start disappearing one by one.
Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli produces Chernobyl Diaries and it shows in the way the film is shot. A good majority of the shots are the shaky, hand-held approach but the film never falls into mockumentary territory. Using a great location, the early parts of Chernobyl Diaries, the ones where the group snoops around the abandoned buildings and gets fed little fun facts by Uri is really interesting, especially if you aren’t familiar with the disaster. The shots are unforgettable, a little girl’s doll lies near the twisted skeleton of a playground, a Ferris wheel stands eerily still surrounded by barely recognizable bumper cars with weeds sitting in the driver’s seat. At times, it does feel like a “found footage” type film, especially in these early, documentary/tour style sequences. When the lights go out and things start going bump loudly in the dark, the film really takes on a Paranormal Activity feel but it becomes repetitive and the spine-tingling effect quickly wears off.
Chernobyl Diaries suffers from unconvincing acting that never once comes off as natural. The dialogue is fake and forced, coming from characters that are not particularly likable and who make one dumb decision after another. The early scenes between Chris and Paul are a little too sugary sweet (“I’m so happy you’re here, little bro!” *the two wrap each other up in a big bro bear hug) and offer little to no background about their characters. About the only things we do learn is that Chris plans to propose to Natalie and that Paul is constantly getting Chris into trouble. I really didn’t care for either of their characters, Chris constantly whining and in hysterics over their situation and Paul acting like an illogical hardass. The three gals all resort to screaming, crying, and running away from shadowy tormentors we never really see. They are all there to just look hot for the male audience members. Uri is a fairly entertaining character but his role is tour guide and it stays that way. Phillips and Berdal do a passable job as the Australian backpacking couple but we barely hear a word from Berdal. Phillips’s Michael is the only one who uses any form of common sense and the only one of the characters I actually was rooting for.
Chernobyl Diaries refuses to offer up any clear explanation about the shadowy figures that have been attacking this pretty group of morons for an hour and half. Normally, I would say that is a good thing, especially in a horror film. In a horror film, the less we know about the monsters, the creepier they are (Original Halloween anyone? We know next to nothing about Michael Myers!), but here, it would have been nice to know what these things are. We don’t even get the luxury of that and all we know is that they seem to bark! The final forty-five minutes of Chernobyl Diaries is basically the group running around different parts of the city, giving us an extended and up-close tour of the underbelly of Pripyat. Director Parker does do a fantastic job recreating the restricted city (the film was not actually filmed in Pripyat), one of the only aspects of Chernobyl Diaries worth praising. Parker and Peli end up leaning too heavily on the chilling atmosphere, paying more attention to that than the people we are supposed to be rooting for (Or are we?). Overall, if you really want to be chilled to your core, Google pictures of Pripyat or even check out that episode of Destination Truth (that is, if you can stand Josh Gates for more than five minutes). The real incident is far more unsettling than any pricey CGI mutant or sudden loud noise that Hollywood can throw at us.