Bradley Parker's Chernobyl Diaries kicks off with a happy-go-lucky montage of American Euro-trippers goofing around to Supergrass's "Alright." It's a sequence you'd even groan about if your good friends whipped it together on iMovie. The video diary aspect of the film's title is established here, and soon after the overconfident douchey horror cliche, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski)charms (?) his brother's two friends into joining an "extreme tour" into Pripyat.
Haven't heard of Pripyat or Chernobyl? The writers were thinking of you (Paul: "Who here's heard of Chernobyl?" Natalie: "Isn't that where the nuclear disaster happened?"). I couldn't decide if Natalie was being written as a horror ditz (she wasn't) or if the expositional writing was beyond awful (probably). However, in retrospect, I wonder how many teens in the audience actually need Chernobyl explained to them? Near the end of the film, when two of the protagonists find themselves inside the ghostly ruins of the nuclear plant, the audience is let in on some important information: "We need to get out of here before the radiation kills us." This is good advice, seeing as their faces are melting. I wonder how convincing nuclear lobbyists have been at hiding the dangers of being near radiation.
I'm still trying to figure out why this film was made. The eerie presence of off-limit radiation zones has been masterfully handled in Tarkofvki's Stalker, which shouldn't even be mentioned next to this stinker. The tension between characters doesn't grow beyond "You're never there for me as a brother" and falls miles short of the complex relationships in Neil Marshall's spelunking survival-horror The Descent. John Boorman's Deliverance marks a more nuanced look at extreme tourism, where city slickers want to raft down an isolated river system before the whole area is flooded by new dams. The antagonists of the film are the locals who don't take kindly to cocky outsiders, and yet have no way of knowing that they will be displaced or drowned (see Up the Yangtze for a non-fiction displacement situation in China).
The closest Chernobyl Diaries comes to anything beyond a Ukrainian The Hills Have Eyes, is the attempt at portraying a conflicted character in Uri, the tour guide. He is old enough to have lived through the disaster, as well as the shifting political landscape, and as an ex-soldier he establishes his tour company because of what seems like limited financial options. The film hints at Uri knowing about the hidden radiation victims around Pripyat, and yet, while the tourists mess around in the abandoned homes, the big soldier has tears in his eyes. He also includes an abandoned carnival on the tour, alluding to a May Day celebration that never happened. Uri clearly feels for the workers whose lives were destroyed by the meltdown, and yet shows very little malice for the disrespectful brats he guides around. However, because he is the most physically capable, and possesses crucial knowledge of the place, he is of course the first to die. Keeping Uri alive would have resulted in a much more interesting film.
The writers were clearly not interested in investigating in any thoughtful issues. If the argument is going to be made that this is a horror film and is only produced to scare you, I'd suggest you pay your friends a dollar to jump out at you a number of times throughout the day. Excellent horror films are more than a popped paper bag. If we've forgotten about nuclear dangers (even amongst the recent Fukushima disaster), have we also forgotten how to haunt? None of the bumps-in-the-night were as chilling as the sick feeling caused by the depiction of radiation poisoning near the end of the film, and even this haunting feeling is tossed out the window for one final scare which shifts all the blame from Western tourists to the big-bad-probably-still-our-enemy-generic-Eastern-European-government. The thesis of the film seems to be "stay out of dangerous countries that can't even take care of their own issues." I remember looking through one of my dad's National Geographic magazines on Chernobyl and being horrified by the children born with major health problems and missing limbs. The image is still frozen in my mind. I'm not morally upset that the filmmakers turned these children into ravenous killer mutants, but I am disappointed at the wasted potential Chernobyl offered the filmmakers. Again, the film could have used Uri's heart.
There are 439 operating nuclear power plants in the world today, and that leaves me uneasy. This movie only leaves me uneasy about the state of film. It's as though Chernobyl Diaries was produced by a pro-nuclear committee: blame is shifted elsewhere, and the whole thing is easily forgettable. Cue the Supergrass.
BY D.P. Clark (a writer based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada)