Chernobyl Diaries has an outstanding premise, one in which any fan of biohazard films would be wholeheartedly invested. However, for every peak, there is an inevitable trough. While viewers won’t lose their shirts, they won’t exactly earn back their initial capital either.
An American expat living in Kiev convinces his brother and two friends to take a detour to the city of Pripyat, best known as the town inhabited by Chernobyl nuclear workers and their families before it was abandoned in the nuclear meltdown of 1986.
In that, the world’s most lethal nuclear disaster, a series of detonations went off in the core releasing uranium and graphite. We later learned Chernobyl’s radioactive fallout was 100 X greater than the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and that if a second explosion had occurred, it would’ve wiped out half of Europe. The unlucky residents of Pripyat got over 50 X what was considered a safe annual dose of radiation in a few days.
While some have called it exploitation, basing a horror film on a tragedy like that is a stroke of brilliance.
The abandoned towers of Chernobyl / Pripyat were so convincingly reproduced (the filmmakers shot abandoned Soviet bases in Hungary and Serbia) one wonders how many people were fooled into thinking this actually was filmed on location. If film shoots didn’t take so bloody long, it probably could’ve been but who’d suffer for their art to that extent?
When one of the American girls asks why there was a military checkpoint (as if people could just waltz in and wander around radioactively contaminated materials) it rings true. There are lots of dopey college students traipsing through Europe.
“Extreme” tour guide and ex special forces man Uri, who looks like a squat younger brother of boxing champs the Klitschko Brothers, drives the Americans, an Aussie and his Norwegian wife around the abandoned city. At the outset, things go smoothly. Then, all of a sudden, that ubiquitous bug bear of horror movie denizens: car trouble. If there were a Geiger counter for cliches, that one would prove deafening. Soon, the extreme tourists are set upon by wild dogs, a bear and then later, humanoid creatures.
It’s the latter that proves ineffectual. Reviewers have noted the similarities between this film and The Hills Have Eyes (one of the few classic films very capably remade). Wes Craven, however, invested heavily in an uber-violence creature payoff. Here, the mutants are tepid and the gore as spare as the urban backdrop.
It’s a wasted opportunity. Massive doses of radiation cause vomiting and nausea and then after a latency period, bone marrow deterioration and burns that go right to the bone. With some dynamite practical effects, our protagonists could’ve battled twin forces of radiation poisoning plus radioactive mutants, a one-two horror punch worthy of the aforementioned Ukrainian champs.
Well-plotted horrors set up a threshold between normalcy and otherness. Chernobyl Diaries does this brilliantly, juxtaposing the laissez faire cafe life of Kiev with the creepy, abandoned, nature-overrun abandoned city of Pripyat. But when it comes down to brass tacks, grainy cinematography and ineffectual creatures sink this one. A shame.
*** (out of 5)