Movie review by Greg Carlson
It’s not surprising that the support group Friends of Chernobyl Centers, U.S. has raised awareness by criticizing the cheap horror movie “Chernobyl Diaries,” a tired genre exercise with action so routine one imagines its producers reluctant to see it open anywhere near “The Cabin in the Woods,” a movie that exposes and exploits the kinds of clichés on parade in “Chernobyl.” Ironically, the majority of moviegoers would not likely have heard of Friends of Chernobyl Centers had it not been for the suspect taste and callous insensitivity of the filmmakers, who set the film among the ruins of ghost town Pripyat (played in the movie by locations in Serbia), from which more than 400,000 people fled following the 1986 catastrophe.
In a statement posted on the Friends of Chernobyl Centers website, the “horror is not mutants running around, the real horror is the effect that Chernobyl continues to have on the lives of millions who have been devastated physically, emotionally and economically. People are still dealing with the aftermath on a daily basis 26 years later.” While the motion picture industry commonly tramples on respect and decorum if a buck is to be made, co-writer and producer Oren Peli has claimed that the group Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl has written him a letter of support and admiration. If only the movie were as engaging as the free publicity surrounding it.
Peli, whose “Paranormal Activity” capitalized on the no-budget tradition of “The Blair Witch Project” in conjuring scares from the suggestion of raw footage incorporated into the drama, enlists director Bradley Parker to conform to the “Old Dark House” template in which several people are trapped in an isolated location and picked off until only one remains. The most promising elements of the story involve the ways in which contaminated animals have changed and adapted to their environment (picture a razor-toothed variation on Blinky from “The Simpsons”), but the filmmakers only use this angle for a handful of lazy shock/jump scares and a half-hearted subplot about roving wolves.
“Chernobyl Diaries” requires a tremendous suspension of one’s disbelief to accept the “extreme tourism” premise that sends a group of leisure travelers into a radioactive ground zero. Despite repeated assurances by their ridiculously incompetent guide that the short exposure time will be perfectly safe – often coupled with the comical clicks of a handheld Geiger counter – one of the movie’s threats materializes from the helplessness of being lost and unable to contact help. Needless to say, although the movie makes sure to do so, cell phones don’t work inside Pripyat.
Andy Webster pointed out in “The New York Times” that good horror films, like “Night of the Living Dead,” can offer viewers rich metaphors through which political and/or social ideas can share the same space as the monsters that terrify us. “Chernobyl Diaries” boasts no such agenda. The young victims are nearly indistinguishable from one another, and other than some tepid sibling rivalry and the gruesomely thwarted promise of a marriage proposal, Parker can’t be bothered to develop and individuate the cast members. Even “final girl” Amanda (Devin Kelley) is presented with few opportunities to apply intelligence, critical thinking, and problem solving skills to stave off impending death. Mostly, she just gets chased.