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Theatrical Review: CHERNOBYL DIARIES

Brad McHargue

May 26th, 2012

Still from Oren Peli's Chernobyl Diaries

Since his writing and directorial debut with the acclaimed found footage thriller PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, Oren Peli has preferred to serve as a producer, working on films such as INSIDIOUS and THE LORDS OF SALEM, as well as the television series The River. His newest film CHERNOBYL DIARIES continues this trend, with Peli creating the story directed by Bradley Parker and written by Shane and Carey Van Dyke, the duo behind some of Asylum’s most noteworthy mockbusters.

Opening with the found footage aesthetic that Oren Peli is known for, CHERNOBYL DIARIES quickly moves into a standard narrative as doting couple Chris (Jesse McCartney) and Natalie (Olivia Dudley), accompanied by their recently single friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) visit Chris’s brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) in Kiev. After a night of drinking and carousing, Paul suggests they skip their planned trip to Moscow in favor of a guided tour of Pripyat, a city abandoned in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. After some initial hesitance on the part of Chris, the four decide to head to the city, guided by local extreme tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) and accompanied by tourist couple Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and Michael (Nathan Phillips).

Upon their arrival they’re met with resistance by stationed guards, who tell a confused Uri that entrance into the city is prohibited. Instead, Uri leads them to an unguarded entrance through which they can enter the city. After touring a small portion of the city, they make their way back to the car only to discover that the lead wires have been cut, stranding them in the middle of Pripyat and at the mercy of the darkness and the mysterious inhabitants of the city.

Ironically, it’s the setup that of the film that proves to be the most compelling, due in part to solid performances, witty dialogue, and a genuinely creepy aesthetic. Their first stop is an irradiated lake filled with mutated fish; a cheap setup, but one that helps set the mood as they arrive in the city proper. Once they arrive they’re given a quick tour through the city’s abandoned apartment buildings and surrounding areas, the general mood of which is enhanced through the film’s handheld approach.

By the time they get back to the car, the film takes a sharp nosedive into formula, beginning with the discovery that their car has been sabotaged and thus preventing their escape. After the disappearance of Uri and an injury forces some of the group to break off and seek help, the film becomes nothing more than a series of cliched setups and poor decisions that advance the story in ways that is horribly inorganic. It hits a series of expected beats, complete with the typical creepy visuals - shadowy figures, a little girl standing silently, etc - before devolving even further into a shaky-cam mess.

At no point are you given an adequate glimpse of the things hunting them, with Parker preferring to keep them relegated to the shadows. This works, but only to a point; without revealing who they are and what they look like, all you’re given is a group of kids running around and making incredibly foolish decisions. Brief glimpses are given, alluding to their form and numbers without giving away too much too soon. It calls to mind Neil Marshall’s THE DESCENT; however, whereas THE DESCENT puts the creatures front and center for the last half of the film, Parker prefers to obscure their true form with a hyper-frenetic style of filmmaking made even more unbearable by the extreme darkness in which the characters dwell. It’s not a found footage film, but in the end the only difference between the two is a matter of literal perspective - it’s all running around and screaming with very little substance.

That’s not to say that we need to see the creatures. The setting of the film is inherently creepy, with the hand-held aesthetic creating a level of creepiness that could have been enhanced with a genuine backstory concerning why the people are still present in the city and why they’re hunting our protagonists. Instead we’re given a seemingly tacked-on-at-the-last-minute ending that does little to explain anything that just happened. How does the radiation turn people into such horrible monsters? Why was there a child in the city when the radiation certainly would have rendered them sterile? The film thus creates more questions and confusions than it does answers, and it’s terribly unsatisfying.

Grade: C-

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