Chernobyl Diaries Review
There is no on-screen horror which could possibly compare to the appalling physical and emotional payload which the Chernobyl disaster unleashed upon its innocent victims, and for many, any attempt to leverage drama out of the tragedy is at best misguided and crude, and at worst, insensitive and exploitative. For others, many compelling films have been constructed atop the embers of terrible human disasters, and a film generating dark, tense horror amongst the existing framework of the Chernobyl disaster is one which is merely using a collective archive of human memories to lend a picture a heavier and more credible impact. If your mindset is congruent with the former body of thought, then you're not alone; upon its cinematic release, the film drew criticism from some charities who felt that the film was cruelly sensationalising the awful 1986 tragedy. If your mindset aligns with the latter body of thought, then Chernobyl Diaries will certainly present an appealing prospect for you, as Bradley Parker's picture creates a suitably ravaged landscape which, like it or not, presents a diabolical hell that is chilling, claustrophobic, and convincing.
Those who feel jaded by the modern crop of 'found footage' and 'shaky handycam' movies may find this film a case of mixed blessings. Parker makes a shrewd decision in this respect; rather than incorporate a 'found footage' theme where credibility is undermined by the irritatingly incessant requirement to explain just why we keep filming everything whilst in the grip of abject fear ("argh! I'm being eaten alive but I must keep filming it so that the world knows the truth!"), he makes the call to avoid any pretence of this being a character-filmed piece, instead selecting to adopt the rapid movements and vibrancy of handheld filming during scenes of high action whilst reserving the right to use more traditional filming techniques (such as the menacing sweep around the broken down van as the nervous tourists huddle together inside) where he sees fit. The fast moving handheld sequences, whilst clearly an artistic technique, also serve a purpose in helping to complement the relatively modest budget, yet whilst this approach does indeed ensure that the effects are never under close enough scrutiny to be realistically challenged, it does mean that the viewing experience can be quite a frustrating affair, with our eyes struggling to keep up with the arcs and swings of the camera, especially in the darkness of the cavernous stone corridors.
What's perhaps most frustrating about Parker's fusion of the horrors of reality and fantasy is that the potential which is latent in the premise of this gritty yarn barely evolves into its full imaginative potential after the mid-point of the film. And this is all after such a promising and intriguing start; the opening scenes of the carefree youngsters enjoying Europe are far less irritating than they should be, and as Chris joins his brother in Kiev, with girlfriend Natalie and friend Amanda in tow, there's a palpable sense of thickly crawling, enveloping doom shrouding the young party. And when arrogant, big brother Paul encourages the reluctant Chris to drag the crew along to a stint of 'extreme tourism' at Chernobyl courtesy of local tour guide Uri, there's little doubting that their future is about to take a grim and sharp turn for the worse.
Harnessing the looming sense of dread, Parker draws you into his detailed Chernobyl reconstruction, and it's difficult to deny that his depiction of the barren shell of Chernobyl is shiver-inducing. He demonstrates a judicial level of restraint as the tension builds during this phase, and as peril strikes the assembled extreme tourists courtesy of a vehicular failure, we're grimly intrigued by what horror awaits our naive throng. Early shocks here work well, and the tension reaches a premature climax as some of the group find themselves trapped inside one of the buildings, and for a sustained moment, we barely breathe. Yet shortly after, Chernobyl Diaries - rather like its stricken victims - seems to suddenly lose its way. It's not necessarily the lack of a firm reveal, or the understandable confusion and lack of direction that the youngsters take at this juncture. Rather, just when the momentum of the events preceding it should be propelling the fear to greater heights, it's as if any sense of pacing has evaporated, and as the actors stumble around uncertainly - in both a literal and metaphorical sense - the bubble of tension is eased.
That's not to say there aren't plenty of moments to be enjoyed, however, and the panicked descent of the survivors into the claustrophobic warren of underground tunnels, caves, and dingy rooms is a considerably nervy experience. The immediacy of the filming style serves the film extremely well in these sequences, and as they rush with growing futility from one room to another, the physical scope of their peril is impressive. It is during these scenes when Parker wrings the best performances out of his cast, especially after some rather flat performances at intervals during earlier moments of the film. The most impressive transformation is from Olivia Dudley; for the first 20 minutes or so of Chernobyl Diaries, Dudley seems preoccupied with thrusting her chest forward at any given moment, to an extent that looks forced, and unnatural. When such feats are no longer possible at later stages of the film, her performances are far improved as a result.
It may have provoked controversy upon its cinematic release, and it certainly constructs an impressive landscape within which to build its grimly approaching horror, but when Chernobyl Diaries really needs to unleash the full extent of its horror on its viewers, it doesn't quite have the control, or the ideas, to fully realise its earlier potential.
Studiocanal are a reliable source of high quality transfers, and this region B release of Bradley Parker's post-nuclear shocker is proof of their commitment to quality output. Presented in the native aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the visual presentation of this film is everything you should demand from a transfer of a modern film; the image is clean, consistent, and presents the often fast moving action with remarkable transparency. The natural image of the film is somewhat muted, as the imperilled gaggle of youngsters spend much of the film in the desolate and bleached post-nuclear landscape, so you should expect the colours to be less vibrant during these scenes. Blues are especially strong throughout, and these are again apparent later in the film as night falls and much of the action takes place in relative darkness.
The accuracy of the image is also notable; the 1080p resolution depicts an extremely sharp image, and whilst the action may be difficult to see during the faster moving camera movements, this is no fault of the visual presentation, which maintains full pace with all of the frenetic activity on screen.
There are English Hard of Hearing subtitles, which are modestly sized and accurate, and provide other information regarding who is speaking and what sounds can be heard where this wouldn't otherwise be clear. There is also an option to enable Audio Description, which you select via the 'Setup' menu, and this aural accompaniment seems to be well produced and balanced.
Audio presentation arrives in English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and this is an aural presentation to match the well represented visuals. The sound is clean and clear without exception, with dialogue proving well pitched in the mix. Other levels are suitably balanced, with the jumps and the shocks delivering effective levels of impact, without ever proving overbearing or unnatural. The range of tone is solid, with bass notes especially effective. What you may notice is that Chernobyl Diaries keeps Diego Stocco's musical score fairly well muzzled, with the soundtrack providing a fairly low key and often short-lived backdrop to the unfolding action, and with this approach, plenty of attention is given to small but detailed background noises, with judicial care being given to sounds at the rear speakers. These sounds are used sparingly, but the result is that some of the scenes in the guts of the buildings are genuinely rattling as you find yourself surrounded by the gloomy, murky sounds of the subterranean environment and whatever unnamed inhabitants may lurk in there.
There's a small smattering of extras to be enjoyed here.
A two minute Alternate Ending is worth a quick look, but whilst the ending which makes it to the final cut of the film isn't earth-shattering, it's still superior to the one shown here. A short Deleted Scene of the youngsters enjoying themselves in Kiev also demonstrates exactly why it's what it is; a deleted scene, deleted by virtue of it being unnecessary in the wider context of the film.
Chernobyl Conspiracy Viral Video is an effort to drum up interest in the film by suggesting some sort of conspiracy around the closure of Chernobyl to visitors, and whilst it's mildly diverting, it's unlikely to remain in your consciousness for very long after viewing. A piece called Uri's Extreme Tours Infomercial is, again, a fairly forgettable segment, this time presenting a Borat-style advertisement for Uri's extreme tours, and once you've seen the film, this offering will make a limited amount of sense.
Finally, there's the obligatory Trailer to round up this very slim set of extras.
It's a film that opens with an intriguing premise, then gathers some impressive momentum towards the middle phase, but ultimately Chernobyl Diaries runs out of steam and loses itself in its own maze of unrealised ideas. Fortunately, Studiocanal afford Bradley Parker's film a high quality transfer, so whilst the film may have its share of flaws, you can enjoy the straightforward and gritty nuclear horror in a rather fine presentation which remains solid and consistent throughout.