Thursday, June 21, 2012

Chernobyl Diaries

As published in F*** Magazine Singapore, Issue 30

Movie Review                                                                                                  13/6/12

Starring: Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski, Devin Kelley
Directed by: Bradley Parker

            Thank goodness for dumb extreme tourists. Without their extreme stupidity, we practically wouldn’t have any modern horror films. If there’s a safe and/or logical way to get things done, expect them to do the exact opposite in the name of our entertainment, and expect them to bring along a cheap video camera to record all the happy memories.

            That’s the misleading bit though – with “Diaries” in the title, a cast of relative unknowns and Oren Peli of Paranormal Activity fame co-writing and co-producing, you’d think this was the latest in a string of mediocre “found footage” horror movies. Mediocre, yes, found footage, no. The premise seems tailor-made for the subgenre, but perhaps in an attempt to be “original”, the end product is pseudo-found-footage: almost all the shots are hand-held, but not by any of the characters.

            “Characters” is a term used lightly: here we have the whiny Chris (McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), their friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) and Chris’s brother Paul (Sadowski), whom the three have come to Kiev to visit. Paul springs on them the proposition of taking a tour into the abandoned town of Pripyat, formerly home to the staff of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and their families. A backpacking couple (Ingrid Bolso Berdal and Nathan Phillips) tag along; the six led by gruff tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko). They are denied entry into the ghost town by the Ukrainian military, and find their way in through a back passage. Then horrible things happen.

            This has all the hallmarks of a cheaply-made, C-grade horror flick: there are more cheap shocks than a defibrillator factory, trite arguments pass for character development, you’ll impatiently count the minutes until someone dies, and a first-time director and former visual effects artist is at the helm. Perhaps this might work as a student film, were it about 15 minutes long. Like most monster-centric horror films, the Jaws-style “what you can’t see is the scariest thing” ethos is invoked, but ultimately ineffective – it goes without saying that Bradley Parker is no Spielberg.
            The acting is pretty bad, but the screenplay is as much at fault as the actors are. Our hapless extreme tourists aren’t given very much material to work with, and earlier scenes with them joking about feel like a particularly painful improv session at an acting school. There is nothing special about the creature design at all, and you barely get a good glimpse at any of the attackers even at the end. It’s hard to imagine this movie going up against something like Prometheus at the box office, given that movie’s superior scares and much more interesting monsters.

            Of course, Chernobyl Diaries was made for a fraction of the cost, and the saving grace is that location filming in Hungary and Serbia does provide the movie with a convincingly eerie, desolate setting. If only the filmmakers knew what to do with it. The ending is extremely unsatisfactory, especially after audiences have been stringed along for a while, and it is worth noting that the group never even sets foot in the actual Chernobyl power plant, only hanging around the neighbouring town.

            Several charitable organisations and activist groups were up in arms over the insensitivity of the premise towards the victims of the disaster and their families. It’s hard to argue that the tragedy is a juicy starting point for a horror film, but these organisations should be amply relieved that this movie is barely competent and unlikely to make anything of an impression on viewers. The only thing slightly amusing to this reviewer was the cockroach in the cinema aisle – to think these guys would be all that’s left after a nuclear apocalypse.

SUMMARY: Chernobyl Diaries is dire, less half-baked and more like the microwaved (and irradiated) leftovers of a better horror movie.


Jedd Jong  


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