Director Bradley Parker shot “Chernobyl Diaries” in the manner of the popular scare-fest “The Blair Witch Project” using hand held cameras and like that film, the characters film themselves. Three young people are in the Ukraine visiting a friend’s brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) who now lives there. Screen writers Shane and Cary Van Dyke, round out the characters by touching on their relationships, such as Paul’s sibling rivalry with younger brother, Chris (Jesse McCartney, who looks like a young Leonardo diCaprio), and Chris’s love interest, Natalie (Olivia Dudley). The dialogue shows them to be sophisticated, mature people in that no one says “like” or “anyways.”
Paul bullies the others into joining him and another couple on an extreme tour run by Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) a blocky, shaven-headed, alien-from-another-planet-like dude. Their destination? Chernobyl- site of the worst nuclear disaster until last year’s catastrophic earthquake and tsunami in Japan that damaged its Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear reactor, laying waste everything for miles.
The premise of “Chernobyl” is that Russia is keeping secrets of what became of people who didn’t, or couldn’t, evacuate the Ukrainian town of Prypiat, two miles distant from Chernobyl, by order of the Soviet Union. Everyone was given only five minutes to pack up and leave. A fleet of buses was conscripted to take the inhabitants to safety, after the nuclear meltdown twenty five years ago. The film hints that the old, the sick, the invalids, and the infirm who couldn’t leave are imprisoned there to slowly die of radiation poisoning; the healthier ones are not allowed to leave lest they tell others about what’s really going on. We see this as a possibility in the fate suffered by Amanda (Devin Kelly) as the last survivor.
Billed in the horror genre, first-time director Bradley Parker ‘s “Chernobyl Diaries” will disappoint horror movie fans. It is slow moving except when characters run through labyrinthine passageways trying to escape things that go bump in the night or flee ravenous beasts; and it is bereft of creepy, supernatural, ghoulish monsters. Though glimpses of small, bald, or hooded figures are seen in windows or creeping ominously and intently after the tourists making their way around in the dark.
In Uri’s beat up military van, they approach Prypiat once inhabited by hundreds of families whose adult members once worked at the Chernobyl nuclear facility. They are stopped at the gate by a guard who tells them that the facility is closed due to maintenance. But of course, Uri knows a secret way in. They take pictures of the area that once boasted tree-shaded gardens and a playground with a Ferris wheel and other rides, now eerily still and rusted. Everything is desiccated; and the old concrete Soviet era blockhouse, hi-rise apartments (like Cabrini-Green) are strewn with rubble and rusted metal.
Led by a confidant Uri, they wend their way in the half-light through apartments still furnished with overturned tables and chairs, a school with dust-covered desks and papers strewn around, a hospital ward with rusted iron beds, and here and there lay creepy, tattered, soiled ,eyeless doll, and weird-looking labs featuring weird-looking machines covered with dust and debris. They hear noises. Uri assures them not to worry, nothing can live here. The setting is haunting. Then something happens to belie Uri’s assurance. They realize they should not have come, so pile into Uri’s van. Night is falling. Predictably the vehicle breaks down; things go from bad to really, horribly bad until there is just one of the six tourists left, then none. One inconsistency is that the tourists start out exploring Prypiat on foot, yet appear to end up in the damaged reactor itself, two miles away.
I believe Parker’s “Chernobyl Diaries” is timely and important; but it got bad reviews. People wanted more horror. What can be more horrifying than a domestic nuclear plant explosion and meltdown which kills people, contaminates and lays waste land for hundreds of miles and for hundreds if not thousands of years? This could be the future for Okuma, Futaba, and other towns which lie within a fifty mile radius of the 2011 Fukushima disaster. Most of the footage for “Chernobyl”was shot in Prypiat. I recommend seeing the Greenpeace and BBC videos of the history of Chernobyl and Prypiat- then and now- on You Tube. Also, tours to Prypiat are as routinely conducted today as there are to the ghost-haunted remains of the prison of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay.