Chernobyl Diaries 2012
CHERNOBYL DIARIES: ALL FLUFF, NO SCARES… EMPTY CALORIES
Oren Peli and his Paranormal Activity came onto the seen in 2009. Why he gets to be the darling of the Found Footage format I don’t know. The Blair Witch Project (1999) made the term Found Footage common place. Even before the TBWP we had the cult classic Cannibal Holocaust (1980), Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (1998), and The Last Broadcast (1998), The Last Horror Movie (2005), The Zombie Diaries (2006), The Poughkeepsie Tapes (2007), the amazing [REC] (2007), Cloverfield (2008), Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2008) and [REC] 2 (2009). Oren Peli didn’t invent the format or even do anything different with it. I enjoyed Paranormal Activity but it didn’t knock my socks off. I think more impressive was the marketing campaign for the film that managed to put rear ends in the seats. The film itself was good not great. I would argue that The Blair Witch Project was a much creepier affair. Paranormal Entity, which came out the same year as Peli’s Paranormal Activity, was a much more effective and creepier film than Peli’s film that delivered much more scares and a better ending. Yet somehow Oren Peli is the guy with the golden touch that is now producing films left and right. Having seen Chernobyl Diaries I feel that I am justified in asking the question, “Why is Oren Peli the annoited one?” He is good not great, much like his films.
Chernobyl Diaries begins as Chris (Jesse McCartney), Natalie (Olivia Dudley) and Amanda (Devin Kelley) film themselves traveling through Europe on their way to Russia where they will meet up with Chris’ brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). Arriving in Russia, the group does indeed meet up with Paul. Paul shows them around the area. During a quiet moment Chris explains to Paul that sometime during their trip, he will propose to Natalie.
The next morning Paul shows up at breakfast a bit excited. He explains to the group that he has arranged and an extreme tour to Pripyat, the former home of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. The area was quickly evacuated during the days of the disaster that occurred on April 26, 1986. The group is hesitant at first but after some excited prodding from Paul the group agrees.
The group arrives at Uri’s (Dimitri Diatchenko) Extreme Tours office followed by another couple, Michael (Nathan Philips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), who is willing to participate in the tour on this day. Uri gets everyone loaded up in his van and they all head out. After some driving, Uri and the group arrives at a government military check point at the border of the Pripyat zone. The guards turn Uri and the group away telling them that there is some kind of incident going on and no one is allowed into the zone. Uri tells the group not to worry that he knows another way in.
Uri gets the group into the Chernobyl reactor zone where they find a small area filled with apartment buildings that surrounds the Chernobyl reactor. The group exits the van and is led by Uri on a tour of the apartment complexes. When Uri and the group return to the van they find that the van has been tampered with, leaving the group stuck in the zone with the sun going down. What to do, what to do.
Chernobyl Diaries begins like a Found Footage film as the group is filming itself as it travels through Europe making its way to Russia. Once in Russia, the film transitions to a traditional film view point yet it retains the Found Footage feel by using hand held cameras to capture the action. Maintaining the shaky camera experience, maintaining the erratic and non focused camera movement and maintaining the darkness that obscures the action from the viewer. It feels like the Found Footage format but it is not. This begs the question… Why would you want a traditional film to “feel” like Found Footage. That’s like wanting my skin rash to feel like cancer. I don’t get it.
The shaky camera syndrome that is rampant in the film gets tiresome. It kept me from getting into the film’s narrative and knowing that this was the filmmakers choice was all the more frustrating. What did I do to you? Adding frustration on top of frustration, the film is also very dark and things are filmed using the darkness to hide a mostly unseen menace and the violence that is supposed to make up this roller coaster ride experience. IMO this completely undermines and weakens the enjoyment of this movie experience. It feels like one giant tease only to deliver a weak M. Night Shyamalan final reveal. “Is that it?”
The reveal at end was predictable and made one say, “is that it?” Yes, the film implies this final reveal so it should not come as any surprise. If this is the film’s intent, to telegraph the end overtly, then at least make the ride getting there visibly interesting. Otherwise the trailer is all you need to watch because the minute and half trailer delivers as much as the hour and half film. I don’t blame the actors. They did their job. The blame lies in the story. There is no there… there. The most exciting moment in the film is an encounter with a errant bear. Ninety minutes of waiting for the radiated mutants to appear and all we get are sounds and shadows. Weak sauce.
Chernobyl Diaries is one giant setup, in darkness and shaky camera, for a weak reveal that we saw coming. It just doesn’t feel worth the time invested. Chernobyl Diaries is not a bad film it is just a limp experience. Watch the Hills Have Eyes (1974) instead. It delivers the same experience only in the American desert not Russia with the added bonus that you get to see stuff. Mr Peli, you can get away with little to no content in a Found Footage film but in a traditional film you have to provide more.