Posted May 25, 2012 by Daniel Hodgson in
Chernobyl Diaries has the kind of consistent, unrelenting stupidity from opening titles to closing credits that should make it worthwhile for connoisseurs of crud.
There is a species of film-goer that loves a good “bad movie.” If that’s you, consider Chernobyl Diaries an appetizer, something to taste before a genuine, legendary stinker. Chernobyl Diaries has the kind of consistent, unrelenting stupidity from opening titles to closing credits that should make it worthwhile for connoisseurs of crud.
“My friends are morons,” says one of the characters to a video camera carried by one of her friends. It’s the second line of dialog in the movie, and sets the tone for everything that follows.
The friends are two brothers, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) and Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley), and her friend Amanda (Devin Kelley). While touring Russia, Michael hears about a local tour guide, Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), who can take them to Pripyat, a town outside the ruins of the Chernobyl reactors that was deserted immediately after Reactor #4 went meltdown. Uri assures them that the radiation won’t hurt them if their trip is brief. A couple, Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), join them just as they depart.
After brief sight-seeing, the group returns to Uri’s van that night, only to discover that its lead wires have been cut. Are they alone after all? Circumstances force Uri to leave the van, with Chris in tow. Something kills Uri, and Chris makes it back with a crippled leg. Now stranded and lost, the group must find a way to either get help or escape, before Chris dies from blood loss.
The setup is fine. Setups don’t have to be steadfastly true to real life; they can be imaginative, and explore what-ifs. Abandoned radioactive towns can be fun, scary stuff. But the problem with Chernobyl Diaries is that the way the characters behave isn’t true to human nature. There’s a moment where Chris tells the group that “they” killed Uri, and leaves it at that. If I were Chris, I’d explain who “they” are, and how many there are of them. If I were listening to Chris, I’d ask him for specifics. In another scene, Amanda examines a picture she took of an abandoned building. The picture clearly shows that someone is watching them from a window. Amanda does not relate this information right away, for reasons that aren’t explained. If you were in a town you thought was abandoned, wouldn’t you warn your friends if you found out that you are, in fact, not alone? The characters act not according to human nature, but according to the necessities of the plot.
I use the term “characters” loosely. Most are one dimensional at best. Michael is the reckless one, ignoring warning signs that the area is not safe. Chris is the cautious one, and Amanda is in between; brave. She’s also level-headed, bringing her up to two dimensions, and actress Devin Kelley carries a tense scene, where she hides from one of the town’s mysterious inhabitants. Natalie, Paul and Zoe, on the other hand, are zero-dimensional. There is no way to ascribe a character trait to them. They exist merely to supply the film with the necessary bodies for a body count. Without personalities, they are just that—bodies, empty shells, and we care no more about what happens to them than we would a newly empty beer can.
And so these facsimiles of human beings are attacked from all sides by things that jump out and go “boo!” Some are actual threats, but many are not. There is a cliche in film—especially suspense and horror—called, “Just a cat.” The scene builds tension, and then something pops out on the screen, and it turns out to be “just a cat.” There are no cats in Chernobyl Diaries, but there are stand-ins that engage in cat-like behavior. The fake-outs make us not take potential threats seriously. Thus, when characters struggle with guns that jam and windows they can’t smash open, it looks like the setup to a joke, and we laugh at them, making Chernobyl Diaries unintentionally funny in parts.
There was, in fact, a fair amount of laughter from the audience at a midnight screening I attended. Critics did not get an advanced screening, and it’s easy to see why. This is Bradley Parker’s directorial debut, and it’s far from promising. The largely unknown cast of actors struggle with the material, unable to flesh out thinly drawn characters. The one thing the film has going for it is cinematographer Morten Soborg’s work, who previously lensed Valhalla Rising. There’s a small handful of effective shots, one a voyeuristic shot from inside the building looking out at the characters, implying the presence of Pripyat’s strange inhabitants. The friends look small in wide shots; the town dominates them, swallows them up. It’s a good looking film, I’ll give it that. But that didn’t stop an audience member from a forced clap at Chernobyl Diaries‘ end. His sarcasm was not missed; it was finally over.
There is a writing dictum that says not to use the biggest words you can, but rather the best words you can. Sometimes, the best words are polysyllabic monstrosities. But in this movie’s case, the best way to put it is also the simplest: Chernobyl Dairies is a steaming pile of crap. Is it as bad as The Room? No, and I wish it were. But a good start.