Studio: Warner Bros.
Disc/Transfer Information: Region 1 (US/Canada); “Matted” Widescreen 16:9
DVD Volume: 7.64 GB
Tested Audio Track: English Dolby Digital 5.1 448 kbps
Director: Brad Parker
Starring Cast: Dimitri Diatchenko, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Devin Kelley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Jonathan Sadowski
EXPERIENCE THE FALLOUT.
In yet another attempt to keep this genre of “perspective by real-time video camera” so prevalent and idiotically popular in filmmaking today alive and kicking, Brad Parker throws his proverbial hat into the ring with the somewhat disappointing Chernobyl Diaries. What is it with these so-called “lost footage” style films that want us to believe that what we’re actually watching up on screen was found in some twenty-something’s camera bag? Some say this whole crock of Hollywood B.S. began with the seminal Blair Witch Project – but I say it started with Paranormal Activity, which, if we weren’t informed was an aforementioned crock of B.S. completely fabricated despite the messages thanking the San Diego Police Department for helping make the film in the beginning, was inherently creepy and definitely unsettling in its own right. The sequels are another story; but the point is, these so-called “lost/found footage” docu-films constantly popping up – i.e. The Last Exorcism, Apollo 18 et al – have been steadily fed to a teen and college-aged theater demographic with an attention span of approximately two seconds and who are more interested on sexting and texting on their “I’m-an-idiot” phones than they are in classically following a coherent film plot as we’ve done for decades. The notion is overdone and annoying at this point, and while Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t really take this “from the camera perspective” quite as literally as projects before it – you don’t see actual video footage time counters going at the bottom of the screen or get the feeling someone is constantly holding a camera to film what’s going on – it still suffers from that shaky, unsteady film style that suggests these events were “recorded” by “real” people (in this case another pack of idiotic alcohol-swigging, careless young jag offs) in real time, and that what was recorded was somehow “found” by someone or an organization that somehow handed the video over to Warner Bros. to make the Diaries. See how ridiculous this all sounds?
Admittingly, I wanted to see this film when the trailer broke. It looked interesting, what with its resemblance to “toxic zombie” stories such as Hills Have Eyes and such; after watching the standard DVD last night, the end result was, as is so often the case, much more disappointing and just hollow. Running at a brisk 80-something minutes, Chernobyl Diaries attempts to suggest the consequences that would occur should a group of healthy humans enter the radiation fallout zone surrounding the infamous Chernobyl reactor meltdown site. Ironically, the much more interesting element on display here rather than the plot or characters themselves is the set – there is something so unsettling and downright creepy about abandoned towns, villages and cities, whether it be from a nuclear disaster as in this case or from rogue experiments as in the case of Hills Have Eyes or perhaps from science gone wrong as seen in I Am Legend. Here, the sweeping vistas depicting a burned-out Chernobyl with its bombed, decrepit buildings and playgrounds coupled with the eerie visual of the still-radiating nuclear plant in the distance makes for a chilling set to take in. In many ways, Chernobyl Diaries indeed reminded me of the Hills Have Eyes remake in which the bombed-out mining town with its radiation-infected mannequins and deserted streets looked very much like the backdrop of this film. In a nutshell, the set design was much more entertaining and effective here than any of the characters, acting or plot.
Filmed, as I mentioned, in a style suggesting this was a “cam-cordered” event, Chernobyl Diaries tells the story of two American brothers, one living in the Ukraine and the other coming to visit him with his fiancé, that decide to embark upon an “extreme tourism” experience – this encompasses seeking out a native tour guide to lead them to the Chernobyl disaster site (why anyone would consciously go to this place, where there are still hints of radiation, for the purposes of leisure vacationing and tourism is beyond me) who loads up the two brothers, their ladies and another non-American couple in a rickety old van worn down enough to make the Scooby Doo bunch cringe and make their way through the abandoned Ukrainian city of Pripyat. In the 1980s, during the time the Chernobyl nuclear reactor was functioning, Pripyat was the home of hundreds of plant workers, but now some 25 years later, the village playgrounds, parks and apartment buildings are desolate, run down and serving as an eerie reminder of what nuclear radioactive power can actually do. What transpires next is a mix of clichéd Hollywood elements designed to get a scare out of an audience, downright bad acting and somewhat disappointing approaches to suggesting a “toxic zombie army” is hiding in the town and stalking the group.
Let’s get the “actors” out of the way, first – aside from noticing one of the kids that also starred in Paramount/New Line Cinema’s Friday the 13th remake (the one who played “Wade”), I didn’t discern any viable, noteworthy talent on display in Chernobyl Diaries. The girls accompanying the guys are most definitely cute, with tight, taut bodies and pleasurably pretty faces, but no one here stands out in any meaningful way. The underlying notion is that the lead guy (the aforementioned prick who starred in Friday the 13th) kind of “forces” this trip to Chernobyl on his brother and his fiancé, pushing them to leave inhibitions aside and go on this “experience” so when the unthinkable occurs, he is kind of the one to blame for getting them all into this. Meanwhile, the tour guide himself, a husky, brooding Ukrainian named Uri, is somewhat perfect in his role and performance (played by Dimitri Diatchenko) yet there’s something we don’t quite trust about him, beyond his rusty, broke-down tour van. At any rate, the two American couples (well, one of the guys, as I said, was in this other country already) and the foreign couple meet at Uri’s “extreme tourism” shop then pile into his van to begin their journey. When they arrive at the location, they find it odd that the place is guarded by soldiers and they must endure a check point. When a creepy guard circles the van slowly and looks at each of the kids inside while Uri talks to another guard outside, we get a sense something isn’t right. Of course, the gist here is that these soldiers can’t risk anything getting into the Pripyat village and discovering exactly what is there, nor can they take the chance of any of them escaping after being exposed to radiation near the plant. When Uri’s request to get through and show the group the village is denied by the soldiers, he finds another way into the area after being pressed by the kid who set the tour up and who wants his money’s worth. Imagine?
Uri’s first stop on the tour is at a serene lake of some kind, which the group horrifically discovers Is still housing some weird radioactive and mutated fish. A sense of dread and fear begins to build, and at this point, Chernobyl Diaries definitely showed some promise. The group eventually comes to the main village where the plant workers used to reside, and we get a full view of the aforementioned bombed-out apartments, playgrounds, amusement centers and schools. The whole scene is creepy in its own right, but we do get a sense that something is watching from the distance and in the shadows – almost in the same vain as I Am Legend and Hills Have Eyes. Uri shows the group around, walking through the abandoned buildings (though it still is illogical that this would be “worth” seeing or walking through) and even coming in contact with a grizzly bear that stomps through one of the apartment buildings they’re checking out. What ends up happening is that as the day turns to night, someone or something has disabled Uri’s van, ripping out the wiring from under the hood, suggesting either something doesn’t want them to leave this town…or something is preparing to make them dinner. Uri insists there is no danger, until night finally falls and the group is trapped in this old van, forcing the tour guide to take his gun he carries with him and look around the abandoned village for any “help” he can find.
When one of the American kids decides to take his flashlight and follow Uri, that’s when things go bad – in the distance, the group in the van hear the gun go off, eventually leading to the other American brother to go see what happened and coming back with his injured brother who has supposedly been attacked by either wild dogs or something else (it’s not really made clear). With his leg in bad shape, the kid and his companions are now alone as Uri has been apparently attacked as well and dragged off somewhere in the village. The remainder of Chernobyl Diaries’ running time, without giving too much more away, concentrates on the group making their way through this radiation-infested village over a few days while they are systematically stalked by…well, we just don’t know. I was expecting to actually see what these things look like, but nothing is really shown, which was the most disappointing aspect of the film in my view. I mean, these are supposed to be radioactive zombies of some kind, but where are they, and what are they actually doing? It’s never really made clear. One by one, the kids are picked off in varying ways, until the last couple of survivors – I won’t say who – somehow find themselves, through a maze of underground tunnels and dark passages, inside the actual abandoned (or not-so-abandoned) Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Perhaps the horrific element here is not so much the mostly unseen attackers, but rather the notion that these kids had come for a tour to this place and little by little they’re worst nightmares are coming to life, much in the style of shockers such as Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the aforementioned Hills Have Eyes; the fact that an ordinary day has turned horrifically bad and that friends are watching friends disappear and ultimately meet their fates, knowing they’re most likely next. In this way, Chernobyl Diaries succeeds in bringing the brooding mood and dread to the forefront; yet something was still inherently missing from this horror shocker.
The ultimate conclusion was a bit disappointing as well, suggesting (and I won’t divulge what actually happens) the government has been protecting this place and promises to medically help the survivor of the ordeal (though completely infected by radiation by the end of the film with burning skin and all) but, as we find out, has other plans. I didn’t quite “get” what happens in the final sequence – or why.
Included on this DVD was a special short film attempting to analyze the true story of Chernobyl and what happened there – but it was way too brief, had no accompanying audio and didn’t really divulge anything we don’t already know, on the surface. We’re told, via text and imagery, that when the disaster occurred, it was some 100 times worse than when the bomb dropped on Japan during World War II, and that residents of the village had less than five minutes to gather their belongings and leave their houses because of the meltdown. We also are informed the disaster was due to human error. And while this was perhaps interesting, none of this explains what exactly the film is trying to suggest…who were these so-called “zombies” or “things” living in the village? Were they workers left behind and who became infected with radiation? Why were a pack of wild dogs not killed by the radiation, and instead are running around the town looking for live human food? If these things were not workers, what were they?
Produced and conceived by Paranormal Activity’s Oren Peli, perhaps the most recognizable of all the hack directors in Hollywood today cashing in on this “camera perspective” nonsensical phenomenon, Chernobyl Diaries will most definitely make a good Halloween-time rental. I don’t know if it’s worth more than that; certainly not a buy for me.
VIDEO QUALITY ANALYSIS:
For a standard DVD, the widescreen transfer of Chernobyl Diaries from Warner looked fantastically clean and debris-free – given the subject matter and the style of film on display here, I was expecting, quite frankly, this disc to be a mess. It wasn’t. Given a “matted” widescreen ratio, the image filled my display without letterboxing and looked clean from beginning to end, with nary a hint of twitch or noise even in the dark, black scenes. Upscaled to 1080p via my Oppo Blu-ray player (courtesy of its outstanding Anchor Bay chipset), the disc displayed even, accurate (if somewhat undersaturated) colors, nice fleshtones, stable black levels and exhibited the somewhat dreary, cold, steely hue undoubtedly purposely chosen by the filmmakers to portray the deserted areas effectively. I’m sure this wasn’t the level of the Blu-ray transfer, but the DVD was extraordinarily smooth and blemish-free.
AUDIO QUALITY ANALYSIS:
The DVD’s Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, while not bombastic with heavy LFE of any kind, was appropriately active when called upon during scare-set sequences; the scenes depicting chaos and action were accompanied by aggressive surround channel activity, while more subtle moments were expertly captured in terms of back channel usage – case in point: Gunshots in the distance found their way as subtle and chilling echoes in the surround channels, while environmental fill elements created a realistic soundstage making you feel that perhaps you were there in the middle of an abandoned radiation-swept town, the soft billowing of a blowing wind cascading behind and around you. This was, however, by no means a barnstormer. Dialogue required some goosing of the master volume, and there was, as I mentioned, a distinct lack of deep LFE on the track.
Give it a rental for this Halloween season.