Room With a View
The name Oren Peli would probably be horror pedigree enough in recent years to make fans sit up and flock to his latest offering Chernobyl Diaries. After all, it would be interesting to see how the original director, and screenwriter for the Paranormal Activity franchise of films, would fare outside of the found footage comfort zone in dealing with yet another horror movie. With first time feature filmmaker Bradley Parker at the helm of the film, it's rather functional and riddled with cliches, but still managed to keep the suspense going at times, with the intriguing premise helping in making you wonder just what would be the final reveal, if any, given the formula for the genre.
Some may deem the film insensitive to those with links to the real Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and while at first glance it may be somewhat exploitative, it has little to do with the disaster itself, borrowing only its name and incident on the skimpiest of surface, before launching into its own story which comprises of a number of mutated wild animals, from fish to dogs and even a grizzly thrown in for good measure. Some frustration would be felt when the filmmakers deem it necessary to keep things under wraps in darkness, which may seem like a cop out of sorts, or to work within the confines of a limited budget.
Chernobyl Diaries deals with the theme of survival of the fittest. It does take a while to introduce you to the rote characters consisting of three pairs of couples - Chris (Jesse McCartney) and Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), the former's brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) and their mutual friend Amanda (Devin Kelley), and Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal). Together, they get on an extreme tour led by an ex-military type Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), in an in-and-out few hours adventure into the abandoned town of Prypiat, where workers of the Chernobyl nuclear plant and their families were once living in. Against all warning signs such as having been turned away at the checkpoint by guards, they go against all logic to venture into the exclusion zone through a loophole, and armed with a Geiger counter, begin to explore the dead town.
The recreation of the deserted landscapes in Hungary and Serbia is top notch, lending a creepy feel to the entire setting, as well as planting very obvious and ominous signs throughout their visit, waiting for a series of trouble to begin, such as a conveniently banged up tour van, and early death and injuries that these tourist have to deal with, lending you the notion that it is Final Destination type inevitable when things really have to descent into chaos in the dark. But while the characters turn out to be really caricatures in disguise, here's the real kicker when things start to shift into higher gear. It's a lesson pretty reflective of survival, that the weakest gets picked off first, and that when instinct kicks in, it's almost always better that someone else become sacrifice for the good of the rest. Rationalizing one's actions also become more pronounced, as if the sacrificed has to repay a debt, and the rest soothing their conscience through the goodwill of seeking help. From nowhere.
Cinematography is a mixed bag though, since this is clearly not found footage, but the camera finds it extremely hard to stay rooted and grounded in order to provide for a more documentary like feel. It's strictly narrative, and I for one would have appreciated a steadier hand in tracking the adventures of these tourists looking for cheap thrills that turned out more than they bargained for. Like its peers in the same genre, there's plenty of running involved, where the roads all lead to Rome, leaving the audience to appreciate where the characters are exactly headed in the final hour even if they're clueless themselves, since we'd likely be a few steps ahead, being primed in to all the blatant clues.
For those who like their gore factor up close and in the clear, Chernobyl Diaries plays it very coy, providing peeks only, cutting away very quickly to avoid being rated too harshly in order to reach out to a wider audience. But alas it's a story that's done to death, only to be put in a new setting, with obvious loopholes in the final few minutes that may be unforgivable. And that's not forgetting who's actually writing these "diaries".