The most serious threats are invisible in the nuclear nightmare Chernobyl Diaries. Sure, there’s a bear, wild dogs, and eerie architecture, but the most dangerous hide either in shadows or in plain sight, given away by a glimpse from the camera or a bleeping Geiger counter—they’re radiation and its mutated victims. First-time director Bradley Parker—who cut his teeth doing visual effects for Matt Reeves, James Gray and others—exploits silence and darkness more than their opposites, keeping his monsters hidden from view, instead warming you to his charismatic actors before threatening them with simple thuds and other vaguely menacing sounds. He’s an expert tension creator: his camera sticks too close to characters when you wish it would pull back (like Ti West’s in The Innkeepers), and hangs back too far when it ought to be closer; you feel like you’re watching, but also like you’re being watched.
The setting is like Tarkovsky’s Zone, if it were full of zombies; the movie takes place in Prypiat, the rapidly evacuated town that bordered Chernboyl and housed its employees. “Nature has reclaimed its rightful home,” as one character describes its now-rusted, abandoned, and overgrown architecture. A gang of Westerners, with a local guide, visits the town illicitly as “extreme tourists,” but become trapped there when their ride is sabotaged, many miles from the nearest checkpoint. The movie begins with the delineation of these characters’ relationship statuses, and then keeps the unattached ones alive the longest. Why? Is it a parable about marriage, like Chernobyl writer-producer Oren Peli’s breakthrough, Paranormal Activity? Honestly, I can’t figure it out, and I suspect it’s a dead-end: Chernobyl Diaries is a tragic and horrible adventure through hell, a movie about radioactive freaks and face-melting radiation stalking American youths on holiday. Sometimes a great premise, effectively executed in a unique setting, is enough.
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