CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: CHERNOBYL DIARIES (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A spooky, abandoned building at night. MICHAEL ARRUDA and L.L. SOARES explore, waving flashlights)
MA: And to think, I could be sitting at home, watching TV.
LS: Oh, come on. This is fun. Exploring abandoned cities.
(Suddenly, there’s a loud clicking)
MA: What’s that?
LS: Our Geiger counter! The radioactivity here is going through the roof!
MA: You still think this is fun?
LS: Sure I do!
MA: Well, I think we should get out of here. Those radiation levels are dangerous.
LS: But we’ve got a movie to review.
MA: And we couldn’t have done it somewhere safe?
LS: Of course not! We’re Cinema Knife Fighters. We don’t play it safe!
(There is a loud howl coming from one of the floors above them)
LS: What was that?
MA: I don’t want to find out. Why don’t you start our review, so we can get out of here.
LS: Okie doke.
Our movie this week is CHERNOBYL DIARIES, brought to us by director Bradley Parker. This is his first movie as director. Previously, Parker made his name as a visual effects guy on a variety of films including FIGHT CLUB (1999), the Vin Diesel action film xXx (2002) and LET ME IN (2010). And it shows. CHERNOBYL is visually interesting. But the person who is getting a lot of credit in the marketing campaign for this one is Oren Peli. He’s the guy behind the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies and also was one of the creators of the recent ABC series THE RIVER (which, unfortunately, didn’t last beyond its first, short season). Peli wrote the screenplay for CHERNOBYL DIAIRIES, based on a story idea by himself, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke. Peli is also one of the producers. And, to be honest, this movie looks a lot like an Oren Peli movie, even though Parker directed.
MA: And it’s a neat idea for a horror movie. The story grabbed me right away, and I was more than willing to go along for the ride. I just wish it had been more thrilling.
LS: Like a lot of these kinds of movies, the story is pretty simple. A guy named Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend, Natalie (Olivia Dudley) and their good friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) are traveling around Europe and decide to pop in on Chris’s older brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), who now lives in Kiev. The plan is that they will be going to Moscow to check out the sights, with Paul as their guide. But, Paul gets other ideas. After talking with his friend Uri (Dimitri Daitchenko), an ex-Russian military guy who now runs an “Extreme Tourism” travel agency, Paul suggests that instead of going to Moscow, they take a trip to Chernobyl instead.
For those who don’t know, Chernobyl was the site of a nuclear accident twenty five years ago, and the facility, as well as the nearby town, Pripyat, which was where the Chernobyl workers lived, have been abandoned since the incident. Uri offers them a chance to explore the deserted landscape, something he claims to only offer to special travelers. Of course, when the group agrees to it, they find out that they’re not so special, because another couple, Australian Michael (Nathan Phillips) and his new Norwegian wife, Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) is tagging along as well.
Uri takes the group of them into the heart of Pripyat, now a ghost town, after sneaking past some military check points. Pripyat has a very eerie quality to it as the young tourists explore its buildings. Uri tells them as long as they are not there for more than a few hours, they won’t be affected by the radiation (which has gone down to manageable levels over the years). And everything seems to go well, until they attempt to leave, and find out that someone or something has tampered with the van’s engine, and they are stuck here, in the middle of nowhere.
As the night goes on, things get more and more dangerous as animals, and other more formidable predators, come out when it’s dark, and the kids find themselves under attack.
(There is a loud crash.)
MA: What was that?
LS: How should I know? What am I, a mind reader?
(The door crashes open, and a large WINNIE THE POOH bear runs through the doorway.)
POOH: Oh, bother. I’m all out of radioactive honey, today. Where did I put my honey? Think, think, think.
LS: Can you think somewhere else? We’re reviewing a movie here.
POOH: I do believe I placed it next to Rabbit’s 8 foot long radioactive carrot. Yes, that’s where it is. (POOH skips by them right through a wall, leaving a huge Pooh-shaped hole in his wake.)
MA: Eight foot carrots? Oversized Pooh bears? We’ve got to get out of here!
LS: Keep your shirt on. We won’t be here long enough for any of this radiation to do any damage.
Where was I?
MA: The folks in the movie were under attack.
LS: Yes, but just who or what is this threat to their lives? And, with no way to contact the outside the world (cell phones don’t work, no one answers Uri’s walkie-talkie, and the nearest checkpoint is over 12 miles away—and, worst of all, NO ONE KNOWS THEY’RE THERE!), will they be able to get out of this place with their lives?
(A door crashes open again, and this time YOGI BEAR and BOO-BOO enter.)
YOGI: Okay, Boo-Boo, we’re almost there.
BOO-BOO: Yogi, I don’ t think we’re anywhere near Jellystone Park.
YOGI: The power of positive thinking, Boo-Boo. Follow me! (They exit through the Pooh shaped hole.)
LS: What’s with all the bears anyway?
MA: I guess bears live around here. Don’t you remember the huge bear that nearly mauled the folks in the movie?
LS (whispers): Shhhh, I was playing dumb on purpose. I was hoping they’d be surprised.
MA: It’s so noisy here. Maybe we should go to another floor to continue this review? Or better yet, why not go outside?
(They enter another room.)
LS: Like Peli’s other films, I thought CHERNOBYL DIAIRIES did a good job of ratcheting up the suspense through most of the movie.
MA: Really? I thought the suspense was lacking in this one. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of suspenseful moments in CHERNOBYL DIARIES, but they weren’t as intense or as disturbing as I expected them to be.
LS: I like that just about anyone can die at any time. And even though Parker is directing, he uses a lot of Peli’s tricks, like having us focus on the main characters as they talk or argue, while strange things are sometimes happening in the background. With these movies, you have to pay attention to the background as well.
MA: Yes, be on the lookout for strange things happening in the background!
LS: The cast is pretty good. While no one here is a movie star, a couple of the cast members may be familiar to you, like Olivia Dudley, who recently appeared in the horror anthology film CHILLERAMA (2011); Nathan Phillips, who was backpacker Ben in the 2005 horror flick WOLF CREEK—another tale of tourism gone bad, and a favorite of mine—and SNAKES ON A PLANE (2006); and especially Jonathan Sadowski, who looked very familiar to me right away, and who was in the 2009 remake of FRIDAY THE 13th, but who was also the lead in the TV series $#*! MY DAD SAYS, with William Shatner.
MA: Yep, I liked the cast too, and that was one of the reasons this story worked so well for me, in spite of the fact that I didn’t find it as scary as I hoped. The characters in this movie are likeable. There wasn’t anyone I wanted to see become food for the pack of wild dogs that kept hounding them. Or the worse dangers…
I enjoyed Jonathan Sadowski a lot as Paul. I liked his take-charge on-the-edge personality, and I was grateful that he didn’t come off as a jerk, which I think is a testament both to Sadowski’s performance and Peli’s writing.
I also enjoyed Devin Kelley as a Amanda, and she made for a strong female lead. And I thought Nathan Phillips did a standout job as Michael, the Australian traveler. There was something very sincere and genuine about his performance, and I think the same can be said for all the actors in this movie. They come off as real people.
Again, a lot of the credit here for these characters should go to Oren Peli’s screenplay. The dialogue is excellent.
LS: Despite the fact that I thought the movie was effective and had a few nail-biting moments—
MA: Too few.
LS: —it’s also true that there were parts of this movie that reminded me a lot of the remake of THE HILLS HAVE EYES (2006), especially the scenes in that movie that took place in a strange, abandoned town that had been once been the site of nuclear tests.
MA: Oh, absolutely! It’s THE HILLS HAVE EYES IN RUSSIA for sure.
(There is a knock at the door. A HILLS HAVE EYES mutant enters.)
MUTANT: Are you guys looking to rent an apartment here too?
LS: No! We’re trying to review a damn movie. Go away!
MUTANT (wanders back out into the hall): I hear the rates are very reasonable!
CHERNOBYL moves at a brisk pace, the characters seem to be constantly moving, and , as I said before, you can never be sure who will live, and who will die. And I liked the ending a lot. Yet, I did find myself feeling a little disappointed as the mysterious threat revealed itself.
MA: Same here.
LS: I was hoping for something a little more..well…surprising. In some ways, CHERNOBYL DIAIRIES really isn’t offering us anything we haven’t seen before, but it does it in a visually suspenseful, tension-filled way, that worked for me. And the location is great. I just wish there were a few more surprises. That said, I give it three out of five knives.
MA: I agree with everything you said, except I was a little more disappointed than you in both the ending and the intensity of the scares in this one.
I definitely liked the beginning of this movie. The premise caught my interest immediately, and you can’t go wrong with the setting, Chernobyl. I mean, this part of the film is extremely refreshing.
I liked the characters’ trek into Chernobyl, or Pripyat I guess, since that’s the actual town they travel to, and at this point the film has done an excellent job of setting the stage for the scary things to come.
When they find themselves stranded there overnight because their van won’t start, because it appears someone tampered with it, which in itself is creepy because no one else is supposed to be there, the suspense grows and at this point I was really enjoying this one.
But a funny thing happened along the way. I realized the thrills and chills here weren’t all that thrilling and chilling. Oh, they were okay, and some of the scenes were fun, but I didn’t exactly find them nail biters.
For example, at one point they’re searching the abandoned city when they come across a pack of very scary looking wild dogs, and these dogs start chasing them, and the folks run away. I’m thinking, “Don’t run! You can’t outrun dogs! Hide or something!” But they run, and then I’m thinking, this isn’t going to turn out well. Someone’s going to become wild dog food in a few seconds. Brace yourself.
LS: I was thinking the same thing. You can’t outrun dogs, especially over a long expanse of woods like that…
MA: Now, I’m not going to give anything away, but this scene doesn’t exactly end in a flurry of nail biting seat squirming sequences. Again, the scene is okay, but there’s no need to look away, and there certainly weren’t any loud screams in the theater at this point.
LS: And I wish they’d shown us more about those cool mutant fish!
(A giant version of the three-eyed MUTANT FISH from the beginning credits of THE SIMPSONS pops up, standing upright on its tail fin)
MUTANT FISH: Me, too. Those fish were cool!
(MA and LS scream, and the MUTANT FISH scuttles away)
MA: The same can be said for several scenes when Paul and the others are searching through abandoned buildings. There is plenty of mild suspense here, but very few of these scenes jumped out at me as being masterful.
LS: And there were the usual scenes where characters go in to certain rooms and you’re like “Don’t go in there!” But in this case, it makes sense. They’re not just going into dangerous situations out of curiosity or because they’re dummies. They’re going to save members of their group who have been kidnapped. Although I don’t know if so many people would be this brave in real life!
MA: I did like the one sequence where Amanda gets separated momentarily from Paul and Michael, when they’re searching a building, and she’s trapped, hiding on her hands and knees from an unknown threat that is there in the room with her. I have to admit I was getting ready to nibble a nail during this scene.
I also didn’t like the ending. Compared to the rest of the movie, the ending isn’t anywhere near as creative. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before, and I think the writers dropped the ball here. It seemed a convenient simple way to wrap up an otherwise inspired storyline.
LS: I liked the ending. I admit, it’s not totally original, but it worked for me. It just seemed like the logical conclusion, after all that came before it.
MA: Logical, but a letdown. This is definitely a case where the threat is more interesting when it’s unknown than at the end when it’s known.
CHERNOBYL DIARIES is a great concept, it takes full advantage of its excellent location, and it gives us likeable characters in a well-written storyline. However, it suffers from a mediocre execution and a disappointing resolution. After a refreshing set-up, it needed to have a much wilder, scarier, and intense second half, or at the very least something creative, but we get neither. Instead, CHERNOBYL DIARIES takes a path we’ve all seen before and doesn’t do anything new with it.
I enjoyed this one, but I didn’t love it. I give it two and a half knives.
So, now that we’re done, can we go home before I become a walking slab of radioactive bacon?
(There’s a loud SIZZLING noise)
LS: You do like to exaggerate. Radioactive bacon! And here I was thinking that for our next review we’d take an extreme tour to chase down tornadoes.
MA: Ha, ha! Good one! You can do that one solo!
(Suddenly, HOMER SIMPSON appears from out of the shadows, the guys scream!)
HOMER: D’oh! I didn’t mean to scare you guys. I just thought I should say something, since I’m a nuclear expert. You two are completely safe here. So don’t worry at all. You will not get contaminated!
LS: Then why is the skin on your face sizzling?
HOMER: Ha ha! So’s yours! You two should look in a mirror. This is so funny! Hee hee.
MA: Um, I’m not laughing!
(HOMER notices something in the corner)
HOMER: Is that a donut? (he wanders away from the guys)
LS: I admit, it looks grim, but we’ll find our way out of here.
(There is a howl and a loud crash from the floor above them.)
MA: All right, for one last time. What is that?
(Suddenly, the ceiling is ripped away, and a huge, radioactive PORKY PIG peers down menacingly at them.)
MA: Whoa! How’s that for some radioactive bacon?
LS: I guess you weren’t exaggerating after all!
MA: Let’s get out of here!
LS: I think I see the exit. Quick, run this way!!
(MA & LS flee, as PORKY PIG looks at the camera and shrugs.)
PORKY PIG: I was only going to say, “Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!”
(HOMER SIMPSON comes up from behind PORKY)
HOMER: Would you like to share a donut? (sniffs) Someone’s cooking bacon! Yummy.
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives CHERNOBYL DIAIRIES ~ two and a half knives!
LL Soares gives CHERNOBYL DIAIRIES~three knives.