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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Chernobyl Diaries

CHERNOBYL DIARIES One and a Half Stars
U. S.: Bradley Parker, 2012

Chernobyl Diaries is an awful picture, but it has, I swear, a great setting and premise for a horror movie. It takes place in the abandoned city of Pripyat: grey, desolate, strange, the site of the Chernobyl Nuclear Reactor Plant disaster — a meltdown that sent the populace fleeing from the immediate area, and closed down the plant for good. I repeat: great location — and part of this movie was reportedly even shot in the real place.

But that’s not enough.

The premise is courtesy of director-producer-writer Oren Peli, creator of the Paranormal Activity series, who has imagined what might happen if the doomed city Pripyat (which is now an actual tourist destination) had been left there to fester and rot and to sink deeper into radiation poisoning — if peculiar, frightening things grew there, and strange beings lurked around the empty buildings, and six young Americans and Australians (three couples), decided to join a local tour guide, Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), for an “extreme tour” of the off-limits grounds and abandoned buildings, by-passing two surly checkpoint guards and driving into the center of God knows what.

That’s not enough, either.

The movie, produced and written by Peli and directed (in his debut feature) by visuals man and second unit director Bradley Parker, has this one great central idea, and one or two more good ones, and many, many bad ones. Like a lot of the new horror movies, the payoff doesn’t really make sense, and the whole movie depends for most of its plot twists on the bizarre lack of foresight, or the outright idiocy, of the main characters, the couples — who never should have gone on this extreme tour in the first place, but once there, should have (for the good of the story), behaved with a little more smarts than they do. They should have done something intelligent to try to stay alive, or hide, or hang onto their occasional weapons, instead of bickering pointlessly with each other, stupidly abandoning all attempts to communicate with the outside world, exposing themselves to every possible danger visible or invisible, and continually running into every dark, confined, unprotected place they see.

The movie‘s set-up is its best part. Peli has rightly held off the big scares (or the big scare attempts) until later, and concentrated instead on introducing us to the four young Americans on their vacation in Russia: two brothers Chris (Jesse McCartney) and his older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), Chris’s girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley) and Natalie’s best friend Amanda (Devin Kelley), who pairs off with Paul. There’s a bit of sibling tension between Chris and Paul, and that may contribute to Paul‘s insistence on the extreme tour of the Chernobyl sight, peddled by ex-Russian military guy Uri.

Against Chris’s opposition, Paul gets the votes of the two girls to go, and, after being joined later by strangers Zoe (Ingrid Borse Bodel) and Michael (Nathan Phillips), they all take a spin in Uri‘s van, slipping unauthorized onto the grounds, going on a quick tour of the buildings — they can only stay a few hours because of the still-potent radiation — and then discovering the first of many bad things that will happen to them. Night is falling, strange wild dogs are howling, the van’s engine has been ruined, and they may have to stay there, locked in the van, the entire night. What? You’ve gotta be kidding me. Give me a Texas Chain Saw Massacre break. Then Uri decides to take a look outside…

Up to this point, Chernobyl Diaries has been a pretty good movie, an absorbing one and even a decently scary one. Nothing really awful has happened. But our interest is held by the fact that we know this is a horror movie and that these kids are going to up against it eventually, and even that some of them may die — but that writer Peli has at least given them some personality and conflict. He’s let things simmer and develop, and we keep following the six (seven, if you count dour Uri) as we see all the dumb rationalizations and tourist guide gab and smart-aleck banter they use as a defense, while they keep going deeper and deeper into trouble, and keep pretending that they’re having fun.


But after Uri goes out to meet what’s out there, Chernobyl Diaries quickly turns into a bad movie, full of radical implausibilities and jittery handheld camera images that we quickly get sick of. Strange little girls out of The Shining. Packs of wild dogs. Bloody corpses. Fish you don’t want to eat, or even see. It’s not just that the movie loses (or maybe loses) its best actor: Diatchenko. We seem to have lost all sanity. Things get nuttier and nuttier. Then, night falls again… Yecccch.


I don’t want to describe any more, because it was bad enough sitting through it all. But I will say this: Any movie that has a bunch of people seemingly trapped inside a forbidden, guarded area — a group that includes not one but two cell phones (at least I think they were cell phones), and several people who speak Russian, ought to at least try to explain why these kids don’t try to use the phones to try to communicate with the outside world.

Does all of Russia have bad mobile reception?  Does the Russian Mafia have a monopoly on the phone system? Or were they walkie-talkies? I‘m not saying these people should have been busy making successful phone calls to helpful police and expert doctors who immediately hop into ambulances and squad cars to speed off to rescue them, instead of the six kids, as they do here, just calling each other up and saying that they’ve found some jumper cables and they‘re on the way. But we should know why our alleged identification figures aren’t trying to make those calls to civilization, dammit. The possibilities are endless — and at least one of them could have made a good suspense scene, like Robert Walker dropping the lighter beneath the sewer grate in Strangers on a Train and frantically trying to fish it out. Somebody could drop a cell phone into the pond with the weird fish. A dog could eat one. Or fetch one. Or bury one. Or Paul could drop his while running from dogs. Or fish. Or the batteries could run out just when they finally get through to somebody.

Was there something I missed? Maybe the camera was jiggling too much? If so, the filmmakers messed up a chance for a surefire suspense bit. But at least Chernobyl Diaries has a good set-up, even if they wasted it. As for the rest, you might want to write it all off as the world‘s longest, most obnoxious public service movie announcement on using cell phones. Or Number One of the 1001 tours you don’t want to go on before you die. Or just another bad movie, one of many.

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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~ David Simon