[25 May 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Here we go,” announces Chris (Jesse McCartney) at the start of Chernobyl Diaries. He and his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), along with her newly single best friend Amanda (Devin Kelley), are traveling across Europe, like so many scary-movie victims before them. They don’t know what’s coming, but you do, as you watch them posing for each other’s cameras, pointing to the Eiffel Tower, name-checking the Tower of London, standing in front of a clunky scene-setting sign at the Frankfurt Airport. By the end of the opening credits, they’ve paused. “Here we are,” Chris asserts, by way of greeting his older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) in Kiev.
And yes, here we all are, embarking on yet another bad idea of an adventure. Sometime in the night and off-screen, Paul has met Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), a former special forces officer, now extreme tours guide who offers to take them to Pripyat, the town where Chernobyl nuclear plant workers lived with their families until 1986. That was the year when nuclear reactor number four failed and, as Uri phrases it, “became one with the air.” In the 25 years since, the place has remained contaminated and abandoned, which of course makes it an ideal vacation spot.
The trip begins with requisite contraindications: Uri’s van is sketchy, the entrance to Pripyat is blocked by armed guards, and the sky is grey. Still, the adventurers—whose number now includes dead-meat Norwegians Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal)—press on. They’re too easily thrilled by a bumpy off-road ride, grossed out by a not-quite dead fish, and put off by Uri’s offer of beef jerky. Amanda snaps photos of empty buildings, Michael and Zoe hold hands, Paul calls the place “creepy as fuck.” They do consider being worried when they come upon a giant brown bear inside one facility, and then again when the van doesn’t start because… “the wires” have been cut.
Now night is falling and wild dogs are barking and oh my god, is that a baby crying? “It’s not baby,” Uri mumbles. And with that, Chernobyl Diaries is pretty much stuck. Everyone—even the tourists and Uri—knows what comes next.
Just so, the guys argue, Zoe frets, and Uri pulls a handgun out of his glove compartment. Whoa, Paul wonders, “What’s with the fucking gun?” Uri heads off into the darkness, followed by Chris, who may or may not believe he can be helpful but who is certainly furious at his brother: “Just sit here and see if you can think of a way that you can fuck this up any more.” A few gunshots later, the kids are left to wonder how best to proceed, absent cell phone signals, weapons, or “wires.”
Absence is pretty much the watchword for Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t explain the brothers’ apparently vexed history, in which Paul is apparently perennially disappointing. It doesn’t indicate how Michael or Paul met Uri or whether Uri is working some scam or just very slow on uptakes. And it doesn’t show much about the monsters who loom in long hallways and drag bodies along floors or nosh on carcasses. The sudden appearance of an ooky blond child solicits the usual silliness, that is, an effort by the surviving tourists to call out to it (Paul’s command of Russian is intermittent, failing him when it might be most helpful) and also approach it.
As you wait for each episode to lead where it must—more victims dragged away screaming, more survivors wailing over particular losses, more exhortations to “Get out of here!”—you might take a minute to reflect on what you do see, which is admittedly, not much. The tourists don’t have much time to react to shadows and blood stains and, nearer the end, packs of lumpy, maybe glowing, humanish figures inclined to lumber and chase after their victims as a collective. This is Russia, after all. As extreme tourist spots go, it comes with enough baggage so you can assemble what you don’t see and what you can assume into a clumsy narrative of conspiracy and creepiness and post-soviet-but-still-communistic monsters.
Or not. Chernobyl Diaries is less interested in resolution than it is in lack—of information, of effects, of sense. Even when Amanda reveals to her fellow travelers that she has in fact spotted “something” in her photos, she’s not leading to anyone to understanding or a plan or even a look at her photos. They worry a lot about “something,” whether “something” is behind a door, if “something” is making a noise, or again, if “something” is coming at them. It’s not a terrible idea, for a horror movie to leave out the something. But this movie doesn’t set up for anything beyond that.