Chernobyl Diaries DVD review
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Diaries? *What* diaries...?
We open with a montage showing us a group of fun-loving, travel-loving, bubbly young people, as viewed through the lens of a hand-held camera. They are enjoying each others company as they travel through various, easily recognised cities. Upon arrival in Moscow they hook up with Paul, who we discover is Chris’ brother. It is not long before Paul is proposing an “extreme tour”, which will involve a guide taking them to the desolate city of Pripyat, abandoned since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986. The premise is one that I thought I would have trouble buying right from the off, because surely nobody is that stupid, right? Why would one wish to go to an abandoned, undeniably dangerous city, in which you know you will be exposed to radiation that is potentially fatal? Well, in fact, to the film’s credit, it does well to sell their choice as a reasonable and realistic one. It is, however, around this point we realise there is a reason none of these people are interesting, or have any back story: they are expendable horror fodder right from the get-go, and it is pretty much downhill from there.
What follows is a rather painfully predictable story of their getting stuck there, realising they are not alone there, and then gradually, one-by-one, meeting a sticky end to suit...and that is no spoiler. In all honesty, if you are at all well-versed in your horror clichés, try this exercise out. Get to the point where they reach the city entrance, are turned away by officials, prompting the guide to sneak them in another way, thus committing the “crime for which they must pay” (if you have seen The Cabin In The Woods you won’t be able to avoid thinking of it at this point), and then put the film on pause. Now, plot the rest of the movie; don’t forget to include how it’s going to end. Once you have done this, hit play and amaze yourself with your rather frightening psychic abilities. Of course, in truth, I was more disappointed with how little the film tried to surprise me; not one twist or shocking moment!
This is not to suggest, of course, that clichés and borrowed ideas cannot be forgiven; in fact tips of the hat to other styles and classics are often welcomed by knowing fans. As an example we can look at this year’s Sinister, a movie from the same production canon as Paranormal Activity and Insidious, and see a film that, to a great extent, went back to the basics of horror handbook and put some tried, tested techniques to excellent, creepy use. It tipped its hat to various classics, rather heavily in fact; you do not have to be a particularly perceptive cinema fan to see the huge influence of Ring, The Shining, The Amityville Horror, The Haunting and The Exorcist in it.
So what's the difference? The difference is where that movie built an interesting central character, had an intriguing arc, was well shot, balanced anticipation of events with the events themselves, and had the courage to follow through with a reasonably satisfying finale, Chernobyl Diaries stumbles from one vague plot point to the next, most of the time in the dark and a lot of the time with no dialogue - and most importantly - with no horror - and an ending that is both obvious and pointless! It is impossible to say who its absolute lack of tension or scariness lies with, but I would suggest Oren Peli, who brought us Paranormal Activity, never really wanted to write this, and director Bradley Parker (for whom this is a first feature) did not know, and was never told, that at least sixty per cent of a movie spent running around in the dark, and in silence, is a little too much.
Where are the scares, the chills, and the scenes that cause or heart rate to increase, ala Rec? Where was the tackling of a serious topic, such as with The Hills Have Eyes? This seems a good point to reference The Blair Witch Project, another film with which it has its comparisons. That movie bored some, but affected many and is now recognised as a staple-point of the found footage genre. Why? Because we came to care about the people we were watching and the horror of the situation was emphasised by disinformation and keeping our point of view limited to the person holding the camera. Who is holding the camera in Chernobyl Diaries? We never know. What are the titular diaries? Same answer. In fact, to say that there are very obvious inconsistencies in this movie would be an understatement. Watch the final reel of the film and notice that you ask yourself, on more than one occasion, “Why did they do that?”
It is a rare film that is so lazy it struggles to inspire even a bad review, but Chernobyl Diaries is just that; not completely awful enough to rant and rave, and nowhere near good enough to feel worth recommending for any reason. The movie has its moments where, more by luck than judgement, I think, a shot works well, or the central idea is poked at from a distance in a way that shows some potential, but then it just loses it again. It is also fair to say that the actors do the best with what they are given and the failure of the film falls the least at their feet. This is a work that takes The Hills Have Eyes, puts it through the standard process of borrowing the best things from a lot of contemporary horror, bolting them on and hoping the name of Oren Peli can carry it the rest of the way. It doesn’t.
An interesting premise and performances aside, this is hugely predictable, tame, inconsistent, and already being forgotten. Even the over-used, unnecessary jump-scare ending feels trite.
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