Some of the more sensitive American critics found the setting of Brad Parker’s new film at the site of a cataclysmic nuclear accident, in poor taste. I didn’t: I thought it was inspired.
Despite its title The Chernobyl Diaries is actually about Pripyat, the neighbouring worker’s village, which was evacuated overnight in 1986 and has been cordoned off ever since. For most of the picture Chernobyl only glowers in the distance. It has a cameo at the conclusion.
Nonetheless, the location is terrific. Parker has managed to find, deep in Serbia and Hungary, a set spookily reminiscent of the real Pripyat, possibly another long-abandoned Communist power plant. It looks fantastic: dripping, derelict; full of burnt out cars, dilapidated industrial machinery, blown out plaster, rags of browned wallpaper and everything riddled with spindly, sickly looking vegetation, slowly reclaiming a once Ozymandial site. A wonderful metaphor for human hubris, it is badly wasted on this film’s unimaginative screenplay.
That is to say, it isn’t the location that is tasteless: it is the rest of the film. In genre The Chernobyl Diaries sits somewhere between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project, and Elizabeth Olsen’s recent Silent House. However it is only rated 15. This could have been a fascinating, harrowing thriller, or even just a drama. But it’s a claw-free slasher.
No matter. This low-tensile horror has few of Chainsaw‘s … er, chops; little of the downright terror of Blair Witch , but much of Silent House‘s panicked breathing, flashlight-toting and cleavage lionising. Natalie (Olivia Dudley) appears to be in the film only to provide a pendulous canyon for Morten Søborg’s camera to ogle.
There is not even one diary, let alone enough of them to justify the plural of this film’s title. Indeed, the potential for suspense is largely disarmed because, for the most part, we watch the protagonists through a dissociated third-party camera and not their own video footage (as was the case in The Blair Witch Project). The sense that these poor innocent kids are alone is somewhat compromised by the implied existence of a camera crew.
In any case, The Chernobyl Diaries exclusively concerns individuals whom you quickly wish to meet grisly ends. What is meant to pass as suspense plays thus more like delayed gratification.
Chris (Jesse McCartney) is a clean-cut American student, touring Europe with his girlfriend (Dudley) and her buddy Amanda (Devin Kelley, the only character in the film with whom it is easy to empathise). Establishing shots show them unlikeably skylarking around the continent. They visit Chris’ brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), a student resident in Kiev, who is far, far worse. You immediately wish someone would punch him in his smug face, and in early exchanges, some local Kiev heavies nearly do. Opportunity missed.
Paul has arranged an “extreme tourism” outing with local everyman Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) to Pripyat. It is, apparently, dead: nothing can live there.
I bet you can tell where this is going.
The others are reluctant, but agree. Without explanation they are joined by Michael (Nathan Phillips), an Australian whose role seems to be to make us like Paul better, because he is so irritating you even want Paul to punch him in the face, and his European girlfriend Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), whom, like Dudley, is transparently in the picture only as ghoulbait.
The womenfolk are essentially passengers in what follows.
I won’t spoil it. In its way, it is deftly done: the action is nicely implied with shaky handhelds, intermittent light and creative use of darkness. It is amazing how much mood you can summon by not filming anything. Parker could have summoned more had he elected to use incidental music, but (perhaps to maintain the Blair Witch vibe) for much of the film there was none.
As a result, The Chernobyl Diaries struggles to maintain any tension. There are stretches where the kids’ exploration of the underground tunnels is tedious. Some passages actually do provide an opportunity to watch wallpaper peeling. Periodically, radioactive dogs show up to chase everyone for a bit, but never get close enough to cause cause much concern.
As seems compulsory these days, none of our protagonists have a shred of common sense when it comes to knowing when to run away and when not to bolt ignorantly into dark underground bunkers which are populated by mutant freaks (fair enough first time, but on your fourth go-round you’d think you’d learn your lesson).
But this makes it all the more frustrating that it takes them so long to get what’s coming to them.
Chernobyl Diaries is in cinemas 22nd June 2012.
Directors: Brad Parker
Stars: Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski and Olivia Dudley
Runtime: 86 min