Monday, May 28, 2012

Chernobyl Diaries [2012]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (L)  Fr. Dennis (2 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -

Chernobyl Diaries (directed by Bradley Parker, screenplay by Oren Peli along with Shane and Carey Van Dyke) is often a formulaic suspense/horror story -- College kids on a trip (what could possibly go wrong?) following a script written by the same guy who gained fame by making the Paranormal Activity movies (so do you think that there will be "left behind" hand-held video footage?).  Nevertheless I do believe that the film does succeeds at times in breaking some new ground.   And lets face it, for a relatively low budget "b-horror" film, expecting much more of a film like this is almost certainly expecting too much.

The main "new ground" that it breaks is that, like recent "alien invasion" film The Darkest Hour [2011] and possibly Battleship [2012], along with the "haunted house" story The Lady in Black [2012], the Chernobyl Diaries leave American shores.  It's probably "good business" to do so as Hollywood tries to reach-out to and develop new markets overseas.

But IMHO it's good for both American and non-American viewers as well.  Non-American fans of such films get to see them being set on their own turf and (hopefully) increasingly with their own stars and American viewers get to learn something of these other places and their people as well (or perhaps in a more indelible way) .  For instance, American viewers of The Darkest Hour [2011] would be reminded that Russians would know a thing or two about fighting a desperate battle against an army of merciless invading aliens as they actually fought back such an "alien invasion" _for real_ in beating back the Nazis in World War II.  The Lady in Black [2012] would remind American viewers that pretty much the birthplace of creepy "Gothic literature" was England of the 1800s and that when it comes to stories set in creepy sea-side mansions, where the fog and the tides become all but monstrous characters themselves one really can't do better than setting such stories "somewhere in the Isles."  In the case here, the Chernobyl Diaries is largely set at the site of possibly the world's worst nuclear disaster to date (though the more recent accident at Fukushima in Japan may have actually been worse) and plays an enormous homage to all the Japanese and American "radiation produced monster movies" of the 1950s-60s beginning with Godzilla [1954] and continuing with any American film from that era beginning with the words "Attack of the Giant/Radioactive/Killer ..."

So while I have no doubt that many film-goers, both American and non, will continue to find these kind of films irredeemably stupid, I've never had such a negative view of these films.  Yes, such films are generally simplistic/cartoonish and yes they often wildly exaggerate to express a point (Note that these scifi/horror films are arguably descendants of the artistic movement called Expressionism).  On the other hand, I do believe that they can warn, teach and even bring people together.

So what then is this film about?  A small group American college friends/students -- Chris (played by Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (played by Olivia Dudley) and her friend Amanda (played by Devin Kelley) are coming to the end of their summer tour of Europe by visiting Chris' brother Paul (played by Jonathan Sadowski) who's working for a firm in Kiev, Ukraine.  They have one more stop -- Moscow -- before they head home to the Unitest States and continue with their lives.  Paul asks his three visitors if before heading to Moscow they'd like to take a day trip to Chernobyl, about a two hour drive north of Kiev.  "But isn't that the site of like the worst nuclear accident in history?" his brother asks.  "Yes, but I have a friend, Yuri (played by Dimitri Diatchenko) who runs a small 'extreme tourism' agency here in Kiev and he can take us there."  After some initial skepticism/doubts decidse "what the heck?" and to try this out.

So the four show-up in the morning at Yuri's storefront travel agency.  A couple of English-speaking backpackers from Norway, Michael (played by Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (played by Ingrid Bolso Berdal), join the group as well.  They all jump into a rather old, functional-looking van driven by Yuri and head-off to Chernobyl.  What could go wrong?

Well, about 20 kilometers outside of Chernobyl, they are stopped at a military check-point and told to not go further.  Yuri, doesn't entirely understand why, because he's led other groups there before.  But this time the guards simply won't let the group go further.  They tell him that the exclusion zone is temporarily closed "for maintenance."   "Okay, he tells the guards," and begins to back the van up.  He then turns to his group and tells them "Don't worry, this is not the only way to get into the exclusion zone."  Sure enough, some time later, they drive-up to the outskirts of the abandoned town of Pripiat, the main town that had been abandoned as a result of the Chernobyl disaster.  Would it be dangerous to be there?  Presumably yes (hence the check-point some 20 clicks down the road).  But Yuri, a former Ukrainian special forces officer, also has a small Geiger-counter on his person to presumably warn him if they come across any really high radiation hotspot.   Again, what could possibly go wrong?

The place of course looks really, really eerie (and is real).  After all, there are these huge apartment buildings municipal buildings and public spaces, and they've all been abandoned for over 25 years.  Rust, weeds and weather have taken their toll.   Amanda, something of a photographer is taking pictures of everything.  Yuri tells the group that Pripiat is "a place where nature is once again reclaiming it all."

But then, nature and high-energy radiation can make for an unpredictable combination.  Walking by a pond, they come across some rather strange (and vicious?) looking fish.  During the afternoon they have a few more run-ins with some other feral creatures running about this huge exclusion zone surrounding the abandoned city of Pripiat and the adjacent Chernobyl nuclear power plant.

As darkness approaches and they return to the van, they run into a significant problem: Yuri finds that he can't seem to start it.  The cables to the distributor cap appear to be either strangely corroded or more likely sabotaged.  But by what/whom??)  Welcome to the rest of the movie ...

The viewer will recognize that the film-makers have applied _some_ but not all the techniques that made Oren Peli's first Paranormal Activity [2007] movie such a great and suspenseful horror film.  And I must say that they chose _wisely_ which techniques to apply and when, the effect proving to be quite good.  I found the Chernobyl Diaries a far better suspense/horror movie than either Paranormal Activity 2 [2010] and Paranormal Activity 3 [2011].

And the movie does have a message, even if exaggerated for effect, which is the same as all these kinds of movies since the first Godzilla [1954] movie hit the screens that Radiation and Nature don't mix very well, that truly unpredictable effects/problems can arise, and therefore some caution / humility on the part of humanity with regarding such inherently hazardous technologies as nuclear energy is not a bad thing.

Parents, do note that except for language (which is often quite crude ... "What the <bleep> [was that...]?") and that the film is, in fact, a rather scary movie, there's not all that much that would be of enormous concern here.  Still because of its scary/horror intentions, I wouldn't recommend it for a pre-teen audience.  And the language would probably annoy/trouble many.

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