Silver Screen: Chernobyl Diaries *
Shame to see a good premise wasted. Despite underperforming at nearly every level of execution, Chernobyl Diaries is based on a fun idea for a horror movie-- the requisite band of dumbass kids sneaks into the town nearest the site of the former Soviet Union's infamous nuclear disaster.
The catastrophe at Chernobyl works as a backdrop both because of what we already know about it and what we don't know. The obvious horrors the radiation leak, the deaths, the evacuations, and the contamination are counterbalanced by what we don't know. The crumbling Soviet government was notoriously tight-lipped, proving the perfect conspiratorial twist for a mystery: What did they not tell us about the aftermath of the radiation leak?
Giant monsters? No. More moderately sized monsters? Negative. Hideous, trans-species mutations? Nope. Chernobyl Diaries is content to answer that open-ended question with little more than a few blurs of shadows, suggesting what might possibly be some radiation-warped savages, fulfilling the absolute minimum quota for imagination. First-time director Bradley Parker, working off an idea by producer Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity), corrals all the worst parts of dopey trash cinema and slow-burn high-concept horror together into a movie that is at once plodding, blunt, overly familiar, and maddeningly ambiguous. It probably shouldn't be surprising they were aiming low: Credited screenwriters Shane and Carey Van Dyke make their nut churning out straight-to-DVD knockoffs, even penning a cheap imitation of Peli's single success, cunningly titled Paranormal Entity.
The plot is boilerplate: A group of college kids seeking adventure book a trip with a questionable tour guide. In this case expat Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) arranges a so-called extreme-tourist outing for his brother Chris (Jesse McCartney), Chris's fiancée (Olivia Dudley), and her friend Amanda (Devin Kelley). Paul's ex-military pal Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) will take them, along with another couple, for a two-hour tour of the still quarantined town bordering the notorious Ukrainian nuclear plant. Exactly why anyone would want to see an evacuated, radiation-soaked housing project is never explained.
Their van is sabotaged, Uri disappears, and the gang is left to fend for themselves for a night outdoors. Then something comes out of the darkness.
What things? Hard to tell. Parker is coy early on with what threats lurk behind the smudgy blurs slouching ominously in the background, and then he keeps being coy, and then the movie is over. The mystery generated from his withholding builds to a wonderful tension forty minutes in, then curdles and sours. Parker mistakes inscrutability for suspense, and this strategy becomes a copout not to have to design anything interesting or conceive of a fresh take.
The setting itself is poorly exploited. There are brief nods to some strange, aggressive fish in the contaminated water, and a pack of thoroughly unscary wild dogs, and the occasional reminder that everyone is being slowly poisoned by radiation, none of which is particularly cinematic. The characters dumbly flee these mostly invisible threats and exchange empty, expository dialogue about their plight, and are unceremoniously picked off one at a time by who-knows-what.
If you're going to pimp out a major human tragedy as setting for your cheap horror movie, at least go all the way and throw in equal parts blood and toxic sludge. Chernobyl Diaries tries to play it straight, yet barely even acknowledges the recent Fukushima disaster, much less explores this as an avenue for more existential dread. For a smart concept this sure is dumb, and if this is dumb indulgence, how come nobody is having any fun?
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.