Review: The Chernobyl Diaries

Two weekends ago my daughter tried to get me to go see The Chernobyl Diaries with her, but we ran out of time and interest. Yesterday out here in Lakewood, Colorado my friend Richard decided he wanted to see it. I usually avoid horror movies because of a general revulsion for blood and guts rendered in high definition, but I decided to make an exception.

Now I remember the other reason I dislike horror movies: because they are so predictable. It’s similar to the reason why I dislike superhero movies. In superhero movies you know the superheroes will come through in the end. They are superheroes, duh! In horror movies you know there will be lots of fake horror and that actors will run around doing a lot of screaming and making stupid decisions.

The stupid decision part is actually good, and perhaps the most entertaining reason to see a horror movie. Now let me ask you: if you were in the ruins of Chernobyl (the site of the world’s worst nuclear reactor incident), had a Geiger counter with you and were being chased by what I think were zombies (so hard to tell), would you (a) run as far and as fast from the nuclear reactor as possible or (b) “inadvertently” end up near the nuclear reactor core and with radiation lesions all over your body.

In a logical movie you run like hell away from the reactor and hope to hell you can outrun the zombies, Russian bears, wolves and mutant fish. If you survive, you would send soldiers in radiation suits in to look for your lost friends. In The Chernobyl Diaries of course you head toward the nuclear reactor and are quickly losing your vision from all the radiation while the zombies keep closing in. And this is good. How could this possibly be good? Because all characters in horror movies deserve to die. Zombies, mutants and other creatures from the id do us a favor by removing them from the gene pool. It’s Darwinism in action for the 21st century!

Really, there is little suspense in most horror movies, because they are formula. There’s not much in this movie, but I plead guilty to being on heart medications, which makes it virtually impossible to get an endorphin fright rush. I mean, really. In horror movies you know creepy things are going to happen, otherwise you would not go see these movies. The only real suspense is when. You approach a curtain across the driver’s seat in a creepy, bullet strewn bus on the Chernobyl campus and only one of two things is going to happen: something horrible will be immediately behind it, or nothing will be. It’s actually more suspenseful if nothing is behind it.

Kudos to unknown director Bradley Parker for at least picking a creepy setting: the actual Chernobyl nuclear complex. The 1986 nuclear accident in the Ukraine is still ranked by many as the worst incident in history. Thirty one people died and 237 suffered acute radiation sickness from this wholly preventable accident. Many thousands more were affected by significant amounts of radiation. Arguably, the more recent Fukushima Daiichi accident was worse, but that resulted in fewer fatalities (from the release of radiation, not the tsunami). If this movie has any merit, it is to give us a firsthand look at this creepy complex.

How do six young twenty-something American teens end up there? Because they are brainless. The plot has four of them palling around together on an extended European tour. Two are brothers, and one has been living in Kiev for some time. He knows a guy who runs an “extreme tour” of Chernobyl and of course he talks them into it. Two others join them on what is supposed to be a one hour tour, but guards won’t let them past the gate. Naturally their tour guide Uri knows another entrance, so they enter anyhow. Of course they are not in there long before (drum roll) a mysterious accident happens to their van which keeps them from leaving. Uri goes out alone and not to give away too much of a predictable plot, but he doesn’t live too long. What are Zoe, Natalie, Amanda, Chris, Michael and Paul to do? Hint: it will involve lots of running and screaming and ultimately a lot of dying.

I never saw The Blair Witch Project (1999), an ultra-cheap horror movie which developed a cult following. The good news is that The Chernobyl Diaries does not look nearly as grainy, but it feels about as cheap. The better picture quality is because it was all done with high definition digital movie cameras, mostly one steady cam that follows the actors everywhere and is constantly in their faces. Presumably this is done to give the movie the feeling of intimacy. The camera was probably the most expensive prop in this “movie”. (When it is all digital film and even projected digitally, it’s hard to think of it as cinema, but as a video.) There are no sets, just seven principle actors, some rarely seen snarling zombies, a bear, assorted wolves, one zombie girl child seen only from behind, and lots of running, crying and screaming. It’s actually not a very bloody movie, probably because there was not much money to render these effects.

It sounds like I am dissing the movie, but not entirely. The director and actors are virtual unknowns and the plot is but a fig leaf but the actors are at least competent enough at acting scared and acting like they are friends. Given the ghost city that they shot in, it was probably not hard to get in the mood. And yes, it is kind of neat to see Chernobyl in all its HD digital glory. The director gives it a go. For a movie with no budget to speak of, it makes an acceptable albeit largely predictable horror movie. So go see it particularly if you like superhero movies, because its plot will be just as predictable. Admit it: you go to horror movies not to be really scared, but to pretend as if you were actually scared; it’s sort of like riding a roller coaster.

I hope these actors go onto better movies with bigger budgets because they all act decently. Maybe director Parker can leverage this cheap movie to better cinematic venues as well. There are certainly worse horror movies out there, but you are likely to feel you did not get your money’s worth from seeing this movie in the theater. It’s a C+ horror movie, with decent acting but an implausible plot that has one major strength: a location where a real and truly horrible event took place twenty six years ago. No set of zombies from the Chernobyl reactor tanks can possible equal the horror that actually happened there on April 26, 1986.

2.6 points on my four-point scale.

[xrr rating=2.6/4]

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