Film Review: The Chernobyl Diaries: A Foregone Conclusion

Yes, there are going to be spoilers.

So yesterday, after my lengthy digression on The Avengers, I went to see a film I’d been intrigued by for a while. The premise of Chernobyl Diaries caught my imagination almost immediately following my viewing of the first preview. Pripyat was a city in Ukraine founded in 1970 to house the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s workers and their families until the disaster of 1986. The city–and most of the possessions of its inhabitants–was abandoned almost immediately following a flood of deadly radiation into the area.

Think about it: somewhere out there in Ukraine is a city still stuck in the mid-late 80s Communist period–a place that could have easily seen all three of George Lucas’ Star Wars original trilogy like everyone else before its doom–gathering dust, rust, pools of water, weeds, and trees growing out of and into buildings. It is a ghost city where abandoned swing-sets still sway in the winds, old photographs lie on the floors in abandoned homes, and a ferris wheel still stands to celebrate a May Day Festival that never happened. There could even be collector’s items there–such as a tattered first issue of Action Comics–that would prove just as poisonous to a would-be collector as Kryptonite is to Superman. In a lot of ways, it is more sad than creepy. There is so much tragedy there–soaked as indelibly into the stones as the radiation that has doomed it–that it makes you wonder why it happened: makes you wish that it never did. When I first saw Pripyat and the Chernobyl reactor looming ominously in the distance, I wondered what it would have been like had the disaster not happened. But that is neither here nor there: just like legacy that Chernobyl has left us, or that we left it.

If any place could be considered cursed by human action and hubris over Nature, this area would be one of those places. When I came into this film, I thought that the protagonists would be dealing with psychic manifestations of the ghosts within Chernobyl and Pripyat–of the loss of potential and life made incarnate–while at the same time making you–the viewer–wonder if any of it is truly happening and if its not the protagonists having hallucinations by the slow encroaching inevitable horror of man-made radiation poisoning.

Instead, we have a different movie. Extreme Tourism is something I have heard of and I also know that there have been many tours near Chernobyl and possibly into the area even before this film was made. I was really surprised. I always thought that the place would be a complete wasteland, but evidently Nature is more powerful than humanity. The protagonists were young–and I personally think stupid to risk themselves to radiation poisoning despite what their guide said about two hours being a reasonable amount of exposure–but they were all likable: which I’ve not seen happen often in horror movies these days. It actually made me sad knowing that even if they got out of this, they were still going to die from radiation and cancer. That in itself is horrifying enough.

The film plays on three fears and layers them well. The first is the radiation that will slowly kill them if they do not leave and even if they do, it will still be in them. I winced every time they picked something up in the city or dipped their hands into presumably irradiated water like their guide Uri did. The geiger counter they had in their possession as it crackled louder and louder and started to beep was like a timer to their death. Then there were the wild, crazed dogs that lived in the area that they had to avoid: a case of feral Nature turning on protagonists that had few resources to help them.

The main characters had the advantage in their general solidarity, if nothing else, and even when that solidarity was challenged by fear and the realization that they would not be able to leave the city before their two hours were up was offset by their mutual need to survive and their basic empathy as fellow travelers. But then: we have the creatures.

The creepy–the truly creepy thing–about the creatures is that we barely even see them. We just have hints of them: things from the corner of the eye, a distant photograph, a still smoldering fire, a limping shape behind a table in an underground room that hints at deformity, a recording of a car being turned over and people being taken, dead eaten soldiers, a sole, solitary little girl with her back to the protagonists, a flash of a multitude of distorted faces at the end and not much else. It’s as though the director of this film observed an age-old horror genre convention in not revealing what the monster looks like. The unknown is the most terrifying aspect of horror: especially as it comes for and consumes you.

In that sense, for all the trappings of modernism around it, Chernobyl Diaries is a classic horror story: relying less on sex, gore and spectacle and more on a slow, mounting, creepy horror: with the gothic romanticism and terrible majesty of a Nature have reclaimed civilization, a contamination for which there is no cure and little hope for surviving with each passing hour, and–lastly–the presence of monsters and the unknown lurking never too far away in the dark. All of three primary fears are interlinked and even interchangeable. After all, it is no coincidence that at the end of the film the creatures are referred to as “patients”: robbed of individuality by their nature, sick, and no longer even human. It was a film that started out slow–exceedingly so–and then became fast-paced with characters dying at an alarmingly accelerated rate.

I can see why the above elements–combined with the fact that the “diaries” part of Chernobyl Diaries barely plays any role in the film–might make modern horror and movie critics pause and heap negative reviews on it, but if you are a classical horror reader or viewer, you can definitely appreciate the grim fatalism–the inevitability–of the three-fold fear and its triumph over human curiosity and common decency that lies at the heart of this film. I give Chernobyl Diaries a four out of five.

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