Friday, May 25, 2012

Travel Nightmare: CHERNOBYL DIARIES

Chernobyl Diaries is one of those horror movies where the entire plot hinges on one very convincing idiot who can get the whole group to go along with his ideas. In this case the idiot is Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), an American living in Kiev who has the bright idea to take his brother Chris (Jesse McCartney), who is backpacking around Europe with Natalie (Olivia Dudley), his girlfriend, and Amanda (Devin Kelley), her friend, on an extreme getaway. (The characters have these names, but it’s much easier to keep track of them as Brother 1 and Brother 2, blonde and brunette.) They show up at a hole-in-the-wall where they meet their fellow travelers (Nathan Phillips and Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and board a sketchy van driven by Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), a hulking tour guide. Destination: Chernobyl, site of the 1986 nuclear disaster, the worst in history.

The others weren’t too sure about this trip, but Paul (Brother 1, the aforementioned convincing idiot) talked them into it. All that remains at Chernobyl is a radioactive ghost town. What danger could there be? For a while, the trip goes just fine for these tourists. The guide reassures them that they won’t be exposed to a lethal dose of radiation since they’ll only be staying an hour or two. There are guards at a checkpoint that won’t let them in. That’s kind of weird. Even weirder, the guide drives the group in through the back way, down a rundown, woodsy path. Still, though, nothing too dangerous, they suppose. They walk around the ghost town. They see some modern day ruins. They take some pictures. They joke around. They look off into the distance and marvel at the huge nuclear reactor that now sits unused. It’s nothing out of the ordinary.

First time director Bradley Parker does some nice work with silence and the mundane, a trick he no doubt picked up from producer and co-writer Oren Peli, whose incredibly low-budget massive hit Paranormal Activity helped to ignite a new craze of found-footage films. (Funnily enough, the other writers are Carey and Shane Van Dyke, who wrote the direct-to-DVD Paranormal Entity, no relation to Peli’s hit series.) This one starts off with found footage in a smeary, consumer-grade digital montage of London and Paris, but luckily drops that conceit just before the title card, trading it in for wobbling hand-held camerawork of a more traditional kind.

For the longest time, the twenty-somethings just fumble through their tour, getting freaked out a little from time to time, but nothing they can’t handle. Most of the suspense comes from the way the blonde’s shirt has only half of the buttons fastened properly. But then cell phone reception is bad, eventually nonexistent, and batteries die and nightfall is approaching. Things get ominous real quick, but it’s hard to feel too bad about a bunch of barely developed, empty-headed, gullible characters who walk knowingly past obvious warning signs. (Travel tip: if you go to a dangerous place in a foreign country with a stranger, tell someone else where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Or, you know, don’t go.)

Somehow, the van’s wiring has been cut and so they’re stranded. Should they stay in the van and wait for sunrise? Things go bump in the night and slowly the group decides to split up and then someone inevitably disappears. The next day, splitting up once more, they go looking for the missing member of their tour group. Bad move. I’ll give you one guess as to who talks the group into most of the decisions they make. You can probably also guess that characters get injured or go missing with predictable results. Some are found dead, others alive, but either way there’s a lot of the movie spent wandering around an abandoned town shouting “Uri!” or “Natalie!” or “Chris!” over and over again. Of course they’re not alone here. Someone or something is clearly menacing them and it’s not just the loud dogs that are good for a “Boo!” or two. It turns out the place is haunted (or is that inhabited?) by people who like to stand in the background or sometimes jump out of shadows and grab at you for no real reason. They must know they’re not real characters or real specters or zombies or even much of a tangible threat. They’re just set dressing.

Obviously this is not the most respectful way to treat an all-too-real disaster, but the filmmakers don’t even have the guts to use their exploitative premise to exploit much of anything. The first half or so of the movie makes some effective use of the setting, the way the slowly crumbling buildings of the town are flash-frozen in time, eerily still and quiet. When a character hears something rattling around down the hall, it’s spooky. There shouldn’t be anyone there. When someone goes to investigate and the camera stays with those left behind, that’s genuinely creepy. As more of the characters disappear and I found myself not really caring one way or the other, the movie stopped being even slightly scary.

By the time we see more and more of the creeps limping out of the shadows, what little tension that has accrued slips away. And let’s not even talk about the ending, which is unbelievably, eye-rollingly predictable, but which I won’t reveal here because, who knows, maybe you’ll still see it at some point. I guess the way the movie ends is no more generic than the rest of it, though. This isn’t a movie out to subvert cliché, or to do the same old thing in an inventive way. It’s a movie that’s just interested in checking all the boxes, getting the obvious done and getting out. The movie’s not good enough to recommend or bad enough to hate. It just is.

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