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Film Review: Chernobyl Diaries

25th June 2012

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The tagline of Chernobyl Diaries is ‘They said nothing survived. Something did’, and from the outset the premise is obvious: beautiful, stupid Americans go on an adventure to a scary, scary place.

They quickly get themselves into the proverbial faeces through sheer unmitigated arrogance. And pretty soon they’re running around in circles, and (can you guess?) discovering that there’s something alive out there!

What ensues, despite this, does have the potential to be genuinely terrifying: a ghost town littered with formidable Ukrainian graffiti and faded Communist party propaganda, lives abandoned without warning (“the people didn’t even have five minutes”, says less than reliable tour guide Uri), and radiation sickness causing all manner of deformed humanity.

But it isn’t. It isn’t terrifying at all. It isn’t even vaguely scary. And it so, so easily could have been.

There were many moments at which I thought some genuine horror, or psychology, or even just explanation, was about to appear. But the monsters never emerge from the shadows, and we don’t have a back-story – other than that the two ill-fated brothers don’t always get along that well and that one of the girls is newly single and “literally had to be dragged onto the plane”. That’s some deep, deep irony right there.

The abandoned city of Prypiat was potentially an interesting opportunity for something other than manic shrieking and gore, but sadly this was not forthcoming. The location, once home to the workers and families of Chernobyl, could have held any number of stories. I thought on more than one occasion that we would be offered something that related to the history of the city and its former inhabitants, rather than having it as just another in a long line of isolated/ abandoned/ haunted horror film backdrops. But, no.

It was a waste of something that, being so recent and so very, very human, could have been thought-provoking as well as more established than the often brainless horror mould. That it uses such a human story but completely fails to do this means that it isn’t at all surprising that it has been called insensitive by critics.

Tour guide Uri presented a perfect opportunity to delve into the past of Prypiat. So did the things, whatever they were, that lurked in the shadows and caused the terror. But unfortunately the film bottled it. Were Uri’s brooding, mildly tortured close-ups part of a wider narrative that was cut from the final release? I couldn’t say. Either way, it’s a shame he wasn’t made more use of.

The ending too was a disappointment. Having your personality-defunct characters running around in empty buildings for 90 minutes whilst bringing on their own largely deserved demise can work perfectly well (maybe) if there is some sort of revelatory conclusion at the end of it all. You don’t particularly need me to explain the lack of this in Chernobyl Diaries.

Maybe audiences expect too much from what, in all honesty, is no more than a cheesy piece of mild horror candyfloss. But I can’t help thinking that with only a tiny amount more depth, Chernobyl Diaries could have been so much more than its 21% Rotten Tomatoes rating. 

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