Watched May 31, 2012
Eric Forthun’s review:
I don’t know if lazy is the right word to describe Chernobyl Diaries, but it’s certainly an appropriate one for a film that carries its clichés on its sleeve. It’s one of the most gorgeously atmospheric films I’ve seen in a long time, and for the most part is beautifully photographed and elaborately shot. Yet we spend so much time with these uninteresting characters and get a premise that doesn’t deliver on the fronts it promises: what are these things out there? I’m still asking myself that question: sure, there are contaminated people (and animals?), but why can’t we just see them? Most modern horror films insist that less is more, when in reality it’s just laziness on their part to try to effectively scare us; they simply can’t. What ever happened to good, old-fashioned scares, the ones that weren’t entirely jump-related and had some characters behind them?
A group of friends is touring Europe, mainly to visit Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), who is brothers with Chris (Jesse McCartney). The latter is dating Natalie (Olivia Dudley), a woman he plans on proposing to when they hit Moscow. Paul is infatuated with her best friend, Amanda (Devin Kelley), and they both decide that visiting Pripyat, Chernobyl’s neighboring, abandoned city, would be a good idea; everyone except Chris agrees, and he reluctantly goes along. They use Uri as a tour guide, a man who is the epitome of one who holds a secret. All goes well when they visit, except there’s some “maintenance” going on in the town; they take a secret route, get in, and prepare to leave. Only someone…or something, rather, has cut their wires and ensured they stay the night.
The story is interesting, and the concept is particularly brilliant. Dealing with a place that has encountered the most famous nuclear disaster of all time is something that is so ripe with material, and almost destined for success. After all, the possibilities are endless. But why does this film not deal with the material in the potentially appropriate way? One of the first “scares” of the film is a noise they hear in the light of day as they are looking through an old apartment complex: we see Uri hiding something from the group, and we know something is up. Then a bear comes storming through, they run off, and hide away in the van for the rest of the night as loose dogs attack. What is this, a cheaper version of The Grey? The fact is, the focus on animals for more than half of the film is boring and repetitive, building to nothing new; it’s just a falsehood that should be providing scares.
Another thing that irritated me was the complete lack of focus in developing these characters. The first twenty minutes have so much potential, especially when they are bundled in the van for around ten minutes on the way to the site; that’s the perfect opportunity to develop these characters in interesting ways. But we aren’t even introduced to the stereotypical types they are. We’re just given some semblance of who they are and how they’re involved with one another, and that should make us care about them. There are things that could have been relatable, more accessible things if these characters were actually that, but instead they are unfocused messes that we simply don’t care about. A horror film, like it or not, should have a character we root for; we simply don’t have here, and it’s not utilized in the good way. It’s just rather lazy on the filmmakers’ part, and it feels like the production of the film was deliberately rushed.
Much of the film is improvised, even if it doesn’t feel like it; there are some effective moments that lie within that. Most of the effects they use are inspired when they come around; the scene where Amanda is stuck in a room after the men escape is frightening. We don’t really see anything of the thing that is supposedly eating someone; we just hear the munching and the dark, murky tone accents that wonderfully. It’s a remarkable scene in that it feels out-of-place, since it’s purposely methodical and expertly shot. But there’s also something there that ruins the scene; the camera seems to run with her as she bolts, and it feels like a found-footage film. Why did the filmmakers choose to make this a normal-looking film, yet employ those techniques at varying times? To hide the creatures, obviously, but how does that benefit the audience? It frustrates us because we can’t understand what’s going on, with the action scenes being horribly shot and ultimately unrecognizable. I’m not one to complain about bad action scenes, since I typically don’t see them like that, but these were rather bad.
The fact is, Chernobyl Diaries has a fairly compelling premise, one that delivers a commendably creepy ending; it feels full-fledged rather than cut-off, feeling like something of artistic merit in a rather soulless film. The other scenes that supposedly build suspense, though, are actually quite lame, mostly due to virtually no development with these characters. There’s potential in almost every frame, with the story having the ability to reach to new heights that no film has ever addressed. As far as I can tell, a horror film hasn’t been made about Chernobyl, and that surprises me. Maybe after seeing this one, though, I understand why: the more we see, the better the scares have to be. And with a plot like this revolving around mystery, it’s something that won’t pay off no matter what. Do what this film does and not be scary, or reveal too much and lose all mystery; it’s a lose-lose situation for a film I wanted to like but felt frustrated with more than anything else.