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Chernobyl Diaries still
Still from Chernobyl Diaries. (Warner Brothers)

Movie Reviews
By Bernie Jablonski

Having free rein to choose the movies I review, I will sometimes choose a low budget or otherwise obscure movie (such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, which I really wanted to see, and which I really enjoyed) to write about. One might say that I make these choices to educate readers about movies that they might not have heard of, or had planned on seeing, and this is true, but actually I’m not always a fan of the big-budget tent-pole films.

Now that I’ve said that, I must confess that I loved The Avengers. Going in, I figured I would. It was witty, it had a superteam that worked in spite of itself, it had a spiteful villain, it had great special effects, and it introduced some of us bourgeois types to shawarma. But my personal joy was in unexpectedly seeing some great character actors in cameos. Robert Clohessy, late of Hill Street Blues and a member in good standing of the Law and Order universe, is a cop that at first won’t follow the advice of folks in funny costumes. Powers Boothe, who had played the Rev. Jim Jones of Guyana notoriety, plays a (literally) shadowy member of the World Security Council. Also on said council is Jenny Agutter, whom this reviewer has fond memories of from the 1970s (when he was in his teens), having seen her naked in such classics as Walkabout, Logan’s Run, An American Werewolf in London, and Equus. The biggest treat, however, was seeing the immortal Harry Dean Stanton (with appearances in numerous films, and even playing a couple of episodes of Big Love as a corpse) as a bemused security guard who witnesses the transformation of one of the characters.

So don’t get me wrong. I’m not averse to seeing all blockbusters. I promise you, there will be a review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Shunning Men in Black III and Battleship, then, I made my way to Chernobyl Diaries, the latest from producer Oren Peli, and definitely in the low-budget camp. Peli is the man who directed the first Paranormal Activity and produced its sequels; he also directed Area 51, which should be out soon. He is a specialist, of course, in the “found footage” genre, but unlike the above movies (did I mention that PA freaked me out?), Diaries has nothing pseudo- about it; it is a straightforward horror flick that does not purport to be digital film discovered in a broken camera in the middle of the woods. At the very least, we are spared the ShakyCam cinematography that was cool in the 1990s, but is now becoming a cliché.

Chernobyl Diaries

We are introduced to four beautiful young people journeying into forbidden territory, unaware of what awaits them. They do not fit particularly comfortably into the athlete/scholar/virgin/whore archetype examined and parodied so successfully in The Cabin in the Woods, but the similarity conjured up good memories from the previous movie, which is one of my favorites of the year so far. We meet these folks in a montage of them traipsing happily across Europe (oh, to be young), with Moscow as a destination. It is here, it seems, that some important life events are planned to occur. En route to the city, they stop in the Ukraine, where the elder of a pair of brothers comes late to breakfast with a fantastic idea.

It seems that Paul, the older brother of Chris, has the brilliant idea of going on a trip led by some guy named Uri to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Do I have to explain Chernobyl to anyone? In 1986, said power plant had one of the reactors explode, causing the evacuation of the city of Chernobyl, about seventy miles away, and the release of a radioactive cloud that could be detected as far away as Norway. In the 1970s, a city to house the workers, called Prypiat, was built near the reactors. It is here that Uri will take the four. It is an example of what is called extreme tourism.

Extreme tourism? What’s next? Extreme shuffleboard? Extreme hadshaking? Extreme praying? I’m sure that such a thing like this exists, so I’m not trying to alienate all the adventure-seekers out there, but does this sound like a good idea? Would you go on such a trip? Well, Paul’s all for it, and Amanda, a budding journalist, is cautiously for it (what a scoop!), Chris leans Paul’s way, and Chris’ girlfriend Natalie, who asks the obligatory, “say, isn’t that where the nuclear disaster occurred?,” is also game. When  asked about radiation levels, Uri replies with a deep-throated “is OK,” and explains that the radiation has died down to a manageable level over the decades and it shouldn’t affect them, as long as they don’t stay too long. Right.

Dimitri Diatchenko, a native of San Francisco, actually, is a delight as Uri, accurately conveying that sense of dark Russian humor, which includes playing a mean practical joke on his charges. I wish I could relate some of his dialogue to you with his accent. Two other youths join the four, and they all speed off for Prypiat in, you guessed it, a run-down van. Uri would probably say that “eet rohns on luff.” When they reach the city, it is the desolate ruin (abandoned by thousands of evacuated workers) that everyone thought it would be.

The Prypiat set is truly the star of this movie. The location scouts must be geniuses to have found these structures. All I know is that the movie was filmed in Hungary and Serbia (the same as The Raven, where the two countries doubled as 1840s Boston), and that they got their hands on an abandoned something. There are blocks and blocks of dilapidated apartment buildings, parking lots with rusty, discarded cars, and plenty of tunnels. One shot of the young cast gathered around a rotting Ferris wheel provides a great publicity shot. There is a keen sense of nature having overgrown the place.

The kids are ecstatic, barely containing their excitement as they explore. When it is time to leave, “before eet getz dark,” Uri puts the key in the ignition and no, you’re right, the van doesn’t start. Radiation might have burned through the cables, or maybe something else… you know, Amanda could have sworn she saw someone behind one of the windows of the apartment block when she looked close at one of the pictures…

Review continues below

And so it goes. The cast is good at getting across the fear, anger and recriminations (especially between the brothers), and when it gets dark and everyone is confined to the inside of the van, the feeling of claustrophobia is almost palpable. But, inevitably (and probably naturally), people do have to get out of the vehicle, and when they do, something happens with the movie. The characters run deep into the city, running blindly through pitch-black corridors and rooms…and rather suddenly, I lost interest. It might have been me, but I don’t think so. Maybe I had gotten numb to all the running around. This all leads to a surprise ending, which according to your level of tolerance, is either “classic” or clichéd.

Even though Chernobyl Diaries has the look of a low-budget independent film, the cast is made up of professionals, and they keep it all real. The actors are somewhat recognizable. The most familiar one to me is Jesse McCartney (Chris), who was on a show called Summerland. Playing Paul is Jonathan Sadowski, a veteran of the short-lived William Shatner show with the difficult title. Olivia Dudley (Natalie) had parts in CSI: Miami and NCIS, and Devin Kelley was a regular on The Chicago Code and had a recurring role on Covert Affairs. The characters, even though not revealing a whole lot about themselves, remain believable.

If you can handle three-quarters of a suspenseful and atmospheric horror flick, and your tastes run to atmospheric locales, you should see Chernobyl Diaries. Who knows? You might even find the last quarter suspenseful and frightening. But because it is one of those “small” movies, and because the reviews have been less than flattering, you might want to catch it quick.

Bernie Jablonski teaches Mass Media and Film Study in the Fine Arts Department at Marian Catholic High School.

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