Monday, May 28, 2012

Reel Thoughts: Nuclear Waste

Oren Peli is the go-to guy for "found footage" horror films, so it isn’t surprising to see his name as screenwriter of Chernobyl Diaries, the new fright flick about a group of “extreme tourists” who travel to the abandoned city of Pripyat in the shadow of the infamous Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. Things get a bit more extreme than any of them wanted, and soon they probably wish that they had just gone to Disneyland Paris instead.

Chernobyl Diaries isn't exactly a "found footage" film, although it does employ video and camera footage to scary effect. It also uses the true story and setting of Pripyat to create a creepy canvas for what turns out to be a fairly ho-hum horror flick. Peli’s dialogue would make a high school playwright groan (“You’re here with your brother!” Jonathan Sadowski says, establishing his relationship with pop star Jesse McCartney in the most obvious way possible). Later, a curious girl helpfully asks “What happened at Chernobyl?” so that tour guide Uri can set up the eerie setting.

Defying guards who say that Pripyat is closed, the six tourists sneak in and enjoy tromping around the abandoned amusement park, apartment buildings and crumbling restaurants of the 1970’s city built to house the Chernobyl workers, which was evacuated in 1986 immediately after the explosion at the plant. When the time comes to leave, the group finds that someone has sabotaged their engine, leaving them stranded for the night. An attack follows that begins the extreme tourists’ nightmare.

Given the “R” rating, one would expect Chernobyl Diaries to have more gory fun and shocking scares. It actually feels more like one of those emasculated horror remakes like Prom Night that shy away from real horror. There are also bigger holes in the plot that Chernobyl’s damaged Reactor Number 4. Who messed with the car, for instance? Certainly not the subhuman creatures who may or may not be residents who never left. Once the attacks start, the film devolves into one long chase, with an ending that throws the earlier events into question. With the demise of Peli’s dull ABC show The River and this underwhelming Diary, it looks like the Paranormal Activity creator may want some supernatural help to escape the doldrums in his career.

Review by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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