Wednesday, October 10, 2012

30 Days of Fright - 09: Chernobyl Diaries

Horror is supposed to be shocking, that's kinda the point. In developing a shock or fright the makers of a movie need to play on fear and make the audience uncomfortable, that way, when things turn out to be OK and the viewer realises that they're safe and well, they'll get a warm fuzzy feeling and will decide that they like the film they're watching. There must be loads and loads of ways to make an audience feel uncomfortable but some might not be best used in a film designed for entertainment purposes.

The start of Chernobyl Diaries (2012) introduces us to to a bunch of young American's, Chris, Natalie, and Amanda,  travelling across Europe to meet Chris' brother Paul in Kiev. Chris is planning to propose to his girlfriend Natalie in Moscow and has brought Amanda along to help her get over a recent break up (which is pretty fucking sinister really. I mean, "Hi Amanda, I know you've just moved to splitsville but would you mind dragging across Europe so you can watch me propose to my long term girlfriend in a massively romantic gesture?" What a prick Chris is! I liked him from the start!).

Once in Kiev we're introduced to Paul who is a bit of a gobshite. He's been living in Kiev for a while and has gotten to know a local dude, Uri, who runs an "Extreme Tourism" business, though he really only seems to offer one tour and that's of the city of Prypiat about 100km away. What makes the tour so extreme is that Prypiat is the town where the workers and families of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant used to live and the city has been deserted ever since the hurried forced evacuation in 1986.

Uri has two other customers for the Prypiat tour, an Aussie called Michael and his girlfriend Zoe, and they and the rest of the gang pile into Uri's cold war era van and head off on their tour. Uri is an ex-military type and he knows the guards manning the checkpoint into the exclusion zone around the city but that doesn't mean they're prepared to let him in, stating that there's "maintenance" going on. Uri is a resourceful bloke so he takes a less known route through the forest into the deserted city.

Prypiat turns out to be a fascinating ghost town and everyone is impressed and a little awed by the desolation. Even Uri's lame jokes strike a cord and a good time is had. The good vibes soon vanish when the group are startled by a large bear roaming around in one of the apartment blocks and they decide to leave, only something in Prypiat doesn't want them to go...

Paul farted!

Why did it take 26 years for a film like Chernobyl Diaries to be made? The answer is pretty obvious really. Because it's a massively insensitive exploitation of a film, that's why. Everything about this film is about praying on the intended audiences (i.e. non-Ukrainian teenagers) lack of knowledge about Eastern Europe, the Chernobyl accident, the effects of radiation, and the trustworthiness of former USSR ex-special forces dudes.

Believing that the audience would be utterly clueless when watching Chernobyl Diaries gave the film-makers incredible freedom to use the old style soviet city in any way they liked. The setting of Prypiat is undeniably awesome, but the poor buggers didn't have a clue what to do with it.

Setting a film in and around Chernobyl really gives you three options:
  1. Monsters: creatures like Godzilla or the beastie from Cloverfield, some hideous genetically altered animal created by the fallout from the reactor meltdown
  2. Ghosts: of the now dead inhabitants - there are some issues with this as I for one have no clue how many people actually died in Prypiat at the time of the accident or subsequently after they'd moved away, but there's certainly no big harm in having some phantoms causing a stir in the (old) USSR as you could make them quite sympathetic characters
  3. Mutants: The safest bet on the surface and the one ran with in Chernobyl Diaries, but also the most controversial as the events there took place well within living memory there are some people living with deformities as a result, and labelling anyone who suffered in or after Prypiat as villains is treading on thin ice. Mutated people tend not to be all that scary either as once you hear the explanation for what happened to them you'll start to feel sorry for them (unless it was their own fault, and no one was going to use that argument in a film about Chernobyl).
Choice of antagonists aside, Chernobyl Diaries is well made. The sets are spectacular and really do invoke those documentary images of the empty city that you see on the Discovery Channel every April around the anniversary of the explosion. It's by no means one of those first person perspective films, unlike the director Oren Peli's other well known work Paranormal Activity, but there are one or two scenes of video camera footage and they work well to add an air of realism to the film.

The characters and actors behind them are likeable enough, normal types, nothing too special. The presence of an Australian tourist is a nice touch as those fuckers get everywhere. The issue with the the characters is, like far too many of these films, that they aren't written or presented in a way that makes you give a shit about them or even want to give a shit about them. This simple problem, not making more out of the characters other than victims in waiting, starts a rot in a film like Chernobyl Diaries that overwhelms it and eventually brings it down.

Chernobyl Diaries fails to frighten as no sense of dread could be established and maintained for long enough for it to work. Out of all the people in the film the only one I liked and wanted to see more of was Uri the tour guide. It's not that there was a lot of depth to him or anything, it's just that he had a cool van and a shooter, and in Chernobyl Diaries that made him the most interesting person in the whole production.

As a result of the real life disaster in Chernobyl, a lot of people got very sick and died or passed along severe health issues to their children. There's no sensitive way to deal with that in the setting of a horror film which is probably why the makers of Chernobyl Diaries didn't bother trying. Why they didn't bother making a film that was more than just mediocre is another question.

One Thumb Up and One Thumb Down for Chernobyl Diaries.

Ось деякі посилання про фільм минулої ночі і в Чорнобильській благодійність:
Chernobyl Children International:

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