In a horror film, setting and atmosphere is 90% of what can make a great horror film. The other 10% is made up of a combination of a well-written script and good scares. It’s often easy to have one or the other, but combining both and making the film seem natural is a feat on its own. So, for the sake of this review, if we’re going to go by this rational, I guess I could say that Chernobyl Diaries is about 92% of a movie, with the other 8% off somewhere on the cutting room floor, never to be seen again.
It seems that with the end of the Saw series, the torch held by the filmmaker who releases a decent horror film in a series every year has been passed on to Oren Peli, the mind behind Paranormal Activity. Releasing another installment in the Paranormal Activity series every year around Halloween-time, Oren Peli has secured a spot as one of the top writers and producers in the business right now, a title once held by the team of geniuses horror buffs know as Leigh Whannell and James Wan.
In fact, Oren Peli, Leigh Whannell, and James Wan, who I like to call The Trifecta, collaborated on last year’s Insidious, a film that, to this day, holds up as one of the scariest and most interesting horror films I’ve ever seen. I’ve always considered this film to represent the official passing of the torch from Wan and Whannell to Peli. It was released in the midst of the last Saw film and it marked something of a farewell for fans of the series until Whannell and Wan were able to return with another project to scare audiences.
The reason that series’ like Saw and Paranormal Activity work is because of the continued story line that keep audiences asking for more. I respect what Oren Peli is doing with his films. He’s obviously fascinated with the fear of the unknown, and he successfully exploits that fear with millions of audience members every year. And it seems like he’s just been getting better at what he does. Insidious and Paranormal Activity 3 are two of his most accomplished projects, and I see nothing but more success for him in the near future.
Chernobyl Diaries is the first film that Peli’s produced that isn’t made with creative geniuses behind the camera. With Insidious, he had the reliable career of both James Wan and Leigh Whannell to at least ensure some kind of box office return, but with Chernobyl Diaries, it seems like the only thing guiding him was his experience and his faith in the film’s success.
Enlisting Shane and Carey Van Dyke, two writers known for their work over at mock-buster company “The Asylum”, as well as visual effects supervisor and designer Bradley Parker as director, Chernobyl Diaries was pretty much set to become a disaster. Plus, the casting of Jesse McCartney didn’t make much of a case for the movie either. But after seeing the movie, I have to admit that the biggest irony is that the script, which was written by two people who are known for their lack of talent and originality, features quite a bit of both of those things. On a side note, it’s hilarious to me that Oren Peli is working with the Van Dyke’s who, with The Asylum, made a mockbuster of Paranormal Activity called Paranormal Entity.
The story follows a group of tourists who decide to do something called “extreme tourism”. They decide to go out to Chernobyl, which was subject to a fatal amount of nuclear radiation exposure, forcing all of its residents to abandon the city as quickly as possible, leaving all the buildings and belongings behind. No form of government ever bothered to tear it down and it serves as nothing more than an attraction for tourists who dare visit there.
Leading the expedition is Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), ex-military turned extreme tour guide. In tow are American tourists Natalie (Olivia Dudley), Amanda (Devin Kelley), and Chris (Jesse McCartney) who are all there to visit Chris’ brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) who has been living in Russia for a while now. Also coming along for the tour are Australian tourists Michael (Nathan Phillips), and Zoe (Ingird Bolso Berdal). After being denied entrance by two Russian soldiers, Uri is forced to take a detour that allows them enter the town from a different angle.
Once they get to Chernobyl, everyone is able to explore a lost city. Everything that was there during the radiation exposure is still there, and everyone in the group are fascinated by the city’s preservation even after all the tragedy that had been bestowed upon it. After the tour is over, the group makes its way back to Uri’s van. After unsuccessfully trying to start the van numerous times, Uri finds that the cables in his van have been cut up, leaving the group stranded in Chernobyl until they can go and get help.
I refuse to say what happens after that because that’s half the fun of this film. By slightly tweaking the horror formula a little bit, Chernobyl Diaries is a film that kept me guessing until the end twist, which is a gleefully horrifying tip of the hat to an unsuspecting audience. I’m already going to go ahead and say that Chernobyl Diaries is this year’s Red State. Sure to divide audiences and critics in every way that division is possible, what the film lacks in spine-tingling scares, it makes up for with a script that takes the time to set up and develop its characters as well as keep the audience guessing up until the final minute.
The unique setting of Chernobyl is used in every way possible, resulting in a series of truly genre-defining moments that will be hard to recreate in future, similar films. The direction by Bradley Parker is intimate and invading, almost to the point of resulting in a found-footage film. But fortunately, instead of going with that method, Chernobyl Diaries disregards recent trends and makes a much more effective film by not having people consistently stare into a camera lens and document their findings and surroundings.
Chernobyl Diaries suffers from a distinct lack of soul-crushing scares, but with a script that cares about the development of its characters and a deliberate pacing that leads up to a knockout ending, it seems as if the film is much more concerned with the raw emotional reaction of its characters’ situation. The performances are, for the most part, believable. Jesse McCartney delivers his lines awkwardly at some moments, but with two screenwriters that could have ruined this film beyond belief, they do a respectable job with the dialogue they write.
Above all, Chernobyl Diaries works because of the consistently unsettling atmosphere it gives its audience. While never taking the step toward scary, there’s no doubt that it’s at least creepy, and the film’s unique setting makes it all the more fascinating. I can already predict the sudden spike in Ukrainian tourism after the release of this film. By summer 2013, Chernobyl will be the hottest spot in town. Buildings will be restored to their former glory and five-star hotels will be created in memoriam of the victims of the radiation exposure!