Chernobyl Diaries (2012) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
18Oct/120

Chernobyl Diaries (2012)

If nothing else, Chernobyl Diaries is the closest thing to a proper Resident Evil film than anything Paul W.S. Anderson has managed to excrete over the last ten years.  It makes good use of an unusual setting, involves the mixture of military, government, and capitalism in a way that's not immediately clear, and at least has a modicum of good scares.  But the video game-lite terrain comes with certain disadvantages, like splitting up into choose your own adventure teams and hinging every single plot point on a never-ending collectathon.

The plot is pretty simple, but contains a number of stylistic touches that at least attempt to carve a foothold out for itself. When the film starts I thought I was going to be in for another one of those found footage horror films I've grown to be weary of.  A light pop soundtrack, grainy digital stock, and a trio of giggling twenty-somethings scream "target" as they prance around airports during their European vacation.  Almost on queue, I began not-so-secretly longing for each of their deaths just as the film shifts out of its found footage and jumps into the predecessor of the found-footage film, the voyeur-cam.

Horror films have been using this for decades now, especially since Halloween terrified everyone filmmaker to sit their camera outside and shake it around a bit, but it's been missing recently.  Part of what made Insidious so great last year was that it was one of the few horror films to actually abandon the found-footage style and just let the film unfold.  The same goes for Silent House, which definitely borrows from the voyeur-cam but enters the heroine's space with some empathy.  As commentary goes, the way Chernobyl Diaries shifts at the beginning is sneaky, implying that horror films have gotten less potent as they lost their ability to implicate the audience with found-footage.  After all, a recording is meant to be watched, but if you're watching you're intruding.

The cliche of utter obliviousness comes full bloom when the travelers decide to poke the eyeless mutant fish with five rows of sharp teeth and think nothing of the clearly telegraphed response.

That subtle damning of the characters is highlighted through the setting and their gradual decay.  Chris (Jesse McCartney), Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Amanda (Devin Kelley), and Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), decide to take a detour from their trip to Moscow to visit the abandoned town of Prypiat, which lies in the wake of Chernobyl.  As written, they're the most boring stock of characters possible.  One likes sex, the other takes pictures, and two other tourists are introduced later on which might as well have "future victim" tattooed on their foreheads.

The first thirty minutes is a bit of a slog as we deal with their flat romantic issues and laughter.  But when director Bradley Parker finally let's the scares in he keeps the beasties out of sight and just let's the effects gnaw on the hapless travelers.  This is a nice way to bring us full circle into being implicit to the characters fate since you have to imagine a lot of the horror outside.  Yes, there's the fleeting glimpse of something horrible, but it's very limited.  Again, the switch away from found-footage is important, because each scene comes with it the promise of "be patient and you'll see something" versus "you're killing these people with your imagination."

My interest waned as the travelers became less the victims of an unfeeling audience and more a partially-trained S.W.A.T. team.

So the radiation slowly eats at them and then the film grows much less interesting as start making all the standard mistakes of horror film characters.  I thought the reasoning for splitting up was pushing credulity way too far (five healthy adults have to be incapable of carrying one lightweight away from a vehicle.)  The scares become more obvious, if nicely detailed in suggestion and vapor, and the plot devolves further into collecting one item to get to another area.  First they have to find a walkie-talkie, then a gun, then cables, and so on as each scene sets a new material goalpost for the next.

I wasn't disappointed with Chernobyl Diaries so much as I was bored.  That table-setting first act filled with giddy laughter only becomes more interesting in light of the horror that eventually takes place.  But that very horror ends up selling itself short, shying away from the more interesting aspects of implicating the viewer and instead providing yet another pop up target freak show.

For some it will work, but for me the hint of what direction it was leading up to seemed to great to become something so standard.

Chernobyl Diaries (2012)
Directed by Bradley Parker.
Screenplay written by Oren Peli, and Carey and Shane Van Dyke.
Starring Jesse McCartney, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Devin Kelley, and Jonathan Sadowski.

Posted by Andrew

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