Directed by Brad Parker
Distributed by Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
I’ve found somewhat of a running theme in a few of my reviews here of late. It seems that I’ve harped on about the faults of a given film’s script when the other aspects of the production in question have been mostly faultless. Mind you, the movies I’m thinking of have attempted to tell bold or original stories (or both), but have ultimately been hamstrung by a few easily fixed mistakes at the script level (says the unproduced would-be screenwriter).
But what about movies that don’t attempt to tell grand tales? What of films that aim only to elicit a certain reaction from its intended audience? Comedies, for example. There are some brilliant, brilliant tales in that genre, but there are also some simple, humorous flicks that only want to make you laugh. Do we scorn slapstick if its story is slight, yet earns a giggle or guffaw?
And how about horror films? The genre far too often gets looked down upon by snobs and elitists as a lesser form of storytelling. Well, fuck ‘em. If their ignorance prevents them from enjoying some of the most complex, intelligent, and artistic tales the world has to offer simply because they deem the dreaded h-word to be “ghetto”, then we’ll leave them to live their sad and incomplete lives.
Of course, much as comedy has pratfalls and eye pokes, horror has its own baser forms of entertainment. There are jump scares and musical stings, gross-out gore and stunning special effects. If a horror movie’s highest aim is to make its audience squirm in their seats or jump right out of them, and they succeed in doing just that, can we forgive them for not telling the most intelligent or solid of stories? Ah, “forgive” hell. Can’t we just enjoy the occasional braindead romp, so long as its intentions to frighten are pure and true*?
…so I just watched this movie called The Chernobyl Diaries. I remember when it hit theatres a while back. I heard a few mixed reviews, witnessed a coupla arguments over its merits (or lack thereof). And then I found myself in the position of watching and reviewing it. And while its story isn’t the most intelligent, and while its ending is borderline incomprehensible (and just plain damn stupid), and while I still have no idea what the fuck the “diaries” are that the title speaks of…I found myself enjoying this tense, well-acted, and fun little thriller.
Diaries opens with a quartet of twenty-somethings meeting up in Kiev for some travelling and a few laughs. They are: brothers Paul and Chris (Sadowski and McCartney); Chris’ girlfriend Natalie (Dudley); and Natalie’s newly-single tagalong friend Zoe (Berdal). While the others seem to just want a safe, relaxing jaunt around the country, pushy wild-man Paul insists the group try out a bit of “extreme touring”. Enter Uri (Diatchenko), a likable Russian tank of a man who’s willing to take the group into the heart of Pripyat, a deserted city that once housed the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear factory before it was evacuated due to the ’86 reactor catastrophe. Hey! Chernobyl! Well, there’s half the title down.
With a charming Aussie couple (Kelley and Wolf Creek’s Phillips) in tow, the group piles into Uri’s tour van and traverses two hours of rural terrain, only to be turned down at Pripyat’s entrance by the military. It seems as though there has been some sort of…incident, which means no tourists at this time. Undeterred, Uri steers his van onto a secret backroad entrance into the ghost town, where he treats his charges with stunning views of the once-teeming mini-city. The group members travel about, take photos, and have a great time, until…well, let’s just say that they have as much luck as any group of young people touring a strange place. In a van. In a horror film.
Co-written and produced by Paranormal Activity’s Oren Peli, the film opens with a bit of handheld camera work that leads one to believe they’re watching a found-footage POV flick. However, the movie soon ditches that in favor of a more traditional approach (though that verité aesthetic sticks around for the duration). Much like the PA films, Chernobyl tells a spooky, slow-burn story whose tension is ever so carefully ratcheted up as the reels click by. By the time the group found their vehicle messed with in what should be a completely abandoned place, I was unsettled. By the time one of their members was seriously injured by unseen forces while another disappears entirely, I was unnerved. And by the time the real threat presented itself, my knuckles were Chicklet-white.
It’s just too bad that the film falls apart entirely in its third act. Spooky cat-and-mouse and hair-raising jump scares give way to unintelligible sequences of prolonged running, and screaming, and screaming, and running – all captured in a “did Josh from Blair Witch shoot this?” manner. And the ending…oh, that ending. Fuck that ending. The conclusion is not only a bit of a cheat when it comes to the fate of one of its characters, it outright loses its damn mind for its final two minutes. I won’t ruin anything here, but suffice it to say that the film sacrifices any semblance of logic for a cheap final shot. It also features exactly zero diaries. Which is upsetting.
Still! As a fun, creepy spookshow, the movie succeeds. The tension is palpable throughout the first two acts, a few setpieces are genuinely intense, and there are several scares littered throughout that left me jolted. Add to that the solid performances of the cast, and the beautiful scenery and photography (when the camera holds still), and you have a movie that could’ve been so much more, had it chosen to be. Still, for those looking for a fun little creeper to pass the time, a suggestion: watch the film up until the seventy-minute mark, then shut off your player and come up with your own ending.
Warner Bros. presents Chernobyl on a decent enough disc, as the Blu-ray has a sharp image (perfectly presenting the film’s obvious digital cinematography) and solid audio. Bonus features wise, the package is a little slim, if far from bare bones. We have two short features, each running under five minutes. One is Uri’s Extreme Infomercial, which introduces us to character by way of his business commercial. The other is Chernobyl Conspiracy, which blends real footage of the post-Chernobyl incident with a bit of the movie’s conspiracy theory to create a short, effective little chiller. There are also two deleted scenes: Welcome to Kiev, a nice introductory moment to our four leads; and the alternate ending, which is unsatisfying but far less stupid than the closer we’re given.
Ultimately, while the story it tells is far from original (and is ultimately quite dumb), Chernobyl’s intention to get under its audience’s skin and worm around is commendably achieved by the film’s direction and cast. While some may be annoyed or offended by the film come its end credits, this writer ultimately found it to be an enjoyable enough diversion to cautiously recommend.
But seriously, though – what the hell is up with this “diaries” business?
*Understand, I’m not acting as an apologist for all lowbrow horror flicks. There are loads of genre films (all too many) that seek to make a quick buck with little interest in engaging or entertaining their audiences. Fuck those flicks.
– Welcome to Kiev
– Alternate Ending
2 1/2 out of 5
2 out of 5