REVIEW: Is Chernobyl Diaries Offensive? No, It's Just Dumb
The premise of Chernobyl Diaries, in which a group of twentysomething tourists are menaced by malevolent beings while paying a visit to Pripyat, the abandoned Ukrainian town that used to house workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, has been described by some as uncomfortably exploitative of a real-life tragedy. But real-life tragedies bleed through into horror cinema all the time — the genre is frequently a reflection of subconscious dread and anxiety, from the nuclear detonation-born Godzilla menacing a Japan less than a decade after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to the monster that attacked New York in Cloverfield, 54 years later, in a wash of imagery reminiscent of 9/11.
The problem with Chernobyl Diaries isn't that it's offensive, it's that it's dumb — a run-of-the-mill low-budget flick focused on killing off stupid, pretty young things slowly enough to fill out 90 minutes. Directed by Bradley Parker, who worked as a visual effects supervisor on Let Me In, Chernobyl Diaries is produced and based on a story by Oren Peli, the creator of the Paranormal Activity franchise and ABC series The River. With the exception of an intro and a clip found on a camera explaining what happened to two of the characters, it isn't part of the found-footage subgenre Peli has made his own, though sometimes it could use the excuse — the film has loose, jerky camerawork that sometimes seems meant to evoke something shot by a panicky observer, though the effect is more likely a practical one meant to obscure the baddies from full view.
The monsters are mutants twisted by radiation, as far as we're told, and it's for the better that we don't ever get a good look at them. They lurk in the darkness, outlined in doorways and briefly illumined in flashlight beams, and they're creepy enough to seem worthy of the film's greatest effect, its setting. Composed of abandoned brutalist tower blocks and industrial areas, the film's version of Pripyat (it wasn't shot there, though you can indeed take a tour of the actual town these days) is ghostly, all remnants of abruptly abandoned lives and packs of wild dogs roaming the streets. "Nature has reclaimed its rightful home," tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) intones to his customers, but there's no sense of renewal, only of a place burnt out and forever warped.
Uri is the best of the batch of Pripyat wanderers, a solid former special forces soldier turned extreme-tourism business owner. Diatchenko conveys the reassuring professionalism needed to convince visitors of his trustworthiness while also making it clear that his gig is a little sketchy. But the tourists themselves are just awful mutant-fodder. There's the primary four Americans, brothers Chris (Jesse McCartney) and Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) along with Natalie (Olivia Dudley) and Amanda (Devin Kelley), plus Australian backpacker Michael (Nathan Phillips) and his Scandinavian girlfriend Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal). They have their sibling and romantic tensions, which aren't really worth describing — all you need to know is that these are the type of characters who always go into the darkest, scariest room because they need to see what's there, who split up and who stop to bicker or indulge in a freak-out instead of running away as any sane person would.
They are, in other words, the interchangeable, irrational characters who invariably populate horror movies, the kind so cleverly mocked in Cabin in the Woods, and despite the specificity of Chernobyl Diaries' setting, it is really just another generic horror movie reliant on jump scares and ridiculous behavior to carry the action through to the end. The only noteworthy aspect of the film's three travelers and one dedicated expat is that they aren't especially ugly Americans. They're entitled and rude at times, sure, but there's not the sense of panicked paranoia that fed the likes of Hostel and Turistas, that feeling that everyone in the rest of the world secretly does want to kill us. In Chernobyl Diaries, the only sentiment that lingers is one of grinding practicality — that the film is set in Eastern Europe not because it has any larger point to make about the area or the tragedy it uses as a jumping-off point, but simply because it's so affordable to shoot movies there.