Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Film Review: Chernobyl Diaries

Last Friday night I had the pleasure of viewing a little 2012 picture called "Chernobyl Diaries" which combines many things which greatly interest me: large urban areas which were abandoned due to some catastrophic event, and zombies. Some would argue that the mutated humans here aren't zombies, but they'd be wrong. Dead wrong. (Couldn't help it.)

Going in I was afraid that Chernobyl Diaries would simply be "The Hills Have Eyes (2006) Russian Edition". I was almost right, as the movies share very similar situations, and people who have seen both movies will immediately be able to spot the similarities. However, Chernobyl Diaries is a very different movie, and that's a very good thing.

I actually do have a couple of issues with this movie that I'm going to get into a little bit later as they come up. First issue and first topic: the characters.

The only likable character in this film is Yuri, the Russian tour guide who takes the rest of the cast into Chernobyl at all. It's actually not too much of a stretch to say that Michael is also a really cool character, and that Natalie was a good character before she was reduced to "The Screamer". The other characters are all unlikable for one reason or another. The brothers and primary protagonists, Chris and Paul, are both pretentious dicks. There isn't any question about this, and you'll immediately want to punch both of them into tiny, shivering pieces. Paul is the worst of the two, going beyond being a typical dickhead into the realm of creepy asshole, as his main motivation for the first half of the film are simply to bone Amanda while she's getting over a break up. Amanda doesn't garner too much sympathy, though, because for most of the film she's the "Stupid Slut". And by that I mean, she's stupid, and she's dressed entirely inappropriately for the situation. She's more concerned with drawing attention to herself than actually being part of a group. By the end of the film she does become a more sympathetic and likable character, but her four minutes of fame are sadly overshadowed by all the crap leading up to it.

Last on the list is Michael's wife, Zoe, who doesn't deserve her own paragraph, but the last one was getting long. Zoe isn't a very likable character as a person, but as a character she actually improves the movie tremendously for a few reasons. She isn't there to be sex-appeal, like Amanda is, and she isn't as brave, adventurous, or bold as the other characters. In fact, you want to hate Zoe because she's a whimpering little coward who can't do a damn thing right. But Ingrid Berdal's portrayal of the character is believable, and she adds a realistic variety to the cast. In this regard, Zoe might actually be my favorite character. Because she isn't brave and because she can't do things right and because you get so frustrated with how incapable she is of doing the simplest little things, she's a positive character. The movie would have been much worse without her.

The primary issue with Amanda and Natalie is their lack of actual development. They aren't portrayed as anything but "The Slut Paul Wants to Bone" and "Chris's Girlfriend". That's it. That is the utter depth of their character (except, like I said earlier, Amanda evolves into something a bit more likable in the last four minutes). Natalie then goes from a blank slate to a screaming, stupid mess. Very typical horror movie blonde here, which is unfortunate.

As for the plot itself, well, it's pretty good if a little typical. Without spoiling too much, the group of tourists are led into Chernobyl by Yuri for an "extreme tour" which goes awry when they find out that Chernobyl is now home to some very hungry zombies. Actually, I'm going to stop right here and put a huge spoiler warning over the rest of this review. I typically try to avoid spoilers, but it can't be helped, because I have some serious gripes with this film's plot and I can't be vague about them.

The plot is generic, but that's okay. I've seen a lot of generic things which twisted them in incredible ways. Chernobyl Diaries comes very close to actually being a good movie, and that's what hurts it the most. It's become a bit of a staple of horror movies not to explain things, but Chernobyl Diaries takes that a little too far. This is a problem which isn't unique to this film. It's something I've seen on the rise since the release of Cloverfield, and this is a very Cloverfield film.

Normally they wouldn't have had to explain too very much about the zombies for us to get the film. Okay, so the reactor meltdown mutated some of the inhabitants into zombies. That's cool. But at the end of the film we discover that the Russian government has known about the zombies the entire time, and even has a large number of them captive in a prison cell. At the beginning of the film Yuri is unable to enter Chernobyl directly because a pair of stationed guards won't open the gates. Yuri says this isn't typical and that he's normally able to get in. They usually let him know if something has gone wrong.

This implies that the zombies aren't always in Chernobyl. That doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Yuri is also prepared to handle the zombies, at least as far as he knows, and many hints are dropped that he knows about them. The movie's implications draw too many blanks and lead the viewer down too many potential avenues which seem to contradict each other. Are the zombies usually captive and now escaped? Well, that would seem likely, except...

That the zombies have a vast graveyard of modern cars from other victims they seem to have devoured. This doesn't make sense if they're normally in captivity, but if they're not normally captive then why couldn't Yuri get into Chernobyl on that specific day? There's apparently some great accident that changed the game a bit, but we're never told what that could be. All we're left are a pile of clues that seemingly add up in opposite directions. This is a pain.

One of the other issues is the inconsistency of the zombie intelligence. They're often portrayed as fairly typical zombies; slow, shambling, mindless death monsters with an appetite for flesh and an inability to think things through. They also seem to have advanced strength and enhanced muscle development as well as an early on-set of the desire to kill, as the creepiest visual in the movie is a zombie baby crawling across the ground at a pretty good clip. Despite this, they dress in clothes, they know to remove a car's spark plugs without otherwise destroying the vehicle, and they seem to have a complex culture, the ability and instinct to breed, and the ability to set traps. They've obviously at least been at this cannibalism thing quite regularly.

The zombies of Chernobyl Diaries actually have more in common with the "vampires" from I Am Legend, particularly if you've seen the superior alternate ending. They're intelligent savages that seem to not consider their past lives or any relationship to the humans they're devouring. I suppose they're kind of like chimpanzees in that regard. They have the brains, but they'd rather just gorge themselves. It's kind of weird.

At the end of the film we're treated to a government force which, in an attempt to keep the Chernobyl situation under wraps, feeds the barely-escaped Amanda to a horde of starving pasty-skins. So the movie ends, with not a single survivor. This leaves a bad taste in my mouth (and it's another issue which is permeating film recently), but I suppose the ending does it's job. It actually wraps up the story of these characters in a fairly believable fashion, although why they rescued Amanda from the reactor core instead of letting her succumb to radiation poisoning is a mystery to me. Either way, while the character arcs come to a close with this ending, there's still the over-all plot left open-ended, and maybe that's the reason this ending left me so bitter.

The scare and gore factor is pretty low on this one, so if that's what you're looking for I can't possibly recommend it. What Chernobyl Diaries succeeds at is building and exploring an interesting and unique region which seems so familiar but is so very, very alien. If you like to explore your movies and do a fair deal of pondering, I'll recommend this to you. If you want blood splatters all over the place, go watch something else. I will say that this movie would have made a rad survival horror game, and I'll give it a seven out of ten for being intriguing in its location, for the half of the cast that is quality, and a few stars down for its lack of sufficient exposition.

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