Across the Universe: Nuclear Option
'Chernobyl Diaries' and post-atomic movies
By Don Kaye
Special to MSN Movies
Ever since emerging with the original “Paranormal Activity,” which he directed, produced and wrote on his own, filmmaker Oren Peli has been at the center of an expanding horror empire that has included low-budget, generally creepy films like “Insidious,” the “Paranormal” sequels and the upcoming “Lords of Salem” from director Rob Zombie.
While the “Paranormal” juggernaut will presumably keep chugging along with this week’s release of the fourth film in the series, another 2012 Peli project rears its head on Blu-ray this week: “Chernobyl Diaries,” which came out in theaters last May (and returned $35 million on its $1 million budget), follows six young tourists in Russia as they take an illegitimate “extreme tour” to the city of Pripyat, abandoned 26 years earlier due to its proximity to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that melted down. As they explore and then become trapped in the empty metropolis, they quickly realize that they are not the only ones there …
While there have been issues raised about the film’s sensitivity toward the real survivors of Chernobyl, the most effective aspect of the movie by far is its setting: With locations in Hungary and Serbia standing in for Pripyat, the setting is original, wonderfully atmospheric and ripe as the backdrop for a tale of terror. And while “Chernobyl” does have a number of eerie moments, it falls prey to a larger amount of genre clichés: characters we don’t care about, those same characters making dumb choices (like the decision to take the “tour” itself), predictable scares and an inevitable body count as our tourists are picked off one by one.
But (and spoilers here) the biggest letdown of the movie may be its menace: They’re mutated humans, deformed by intense radiation poisoning, lurking in the city and somehow turned into cannibalistic savages. It’s a well-worn idea and the film brings nothing new to it, although it seems more could have been done with the horrific aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster itself. The result is that “Chernobyl” is passable horror entertainment, good for an evening’s viewing, but even the terrific setting can’t overcome the bland characters and standard plot points.
If you want more movies about the unfortunate after-effects of nuclear power in all its forms, you might want to try some of these films as well:
“Them” (1954): One of the first – and still one of the best – sci-fi movies of the 1950s, and among the first to actively bring the fear of nuclear power into the story. In this case, atomic radiation from nuclear blast tests in New Mexico pumps little ants up to the size of automobiles – and we’re talking Cadillacs, not Mini-Coopers.
“Godzilla” (1954/1998): Produced and released just nine years after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the symbolism of a gigantic, radioactive, fire-breathing lizard laying waste to major Japanese cities was unmistakable. In the original, Godzilla is an ancient creature awakened by nuclear testing; in the woeful 1998 remake, he’s the result of those tests: an iguana the size of a skyscraper.
“The Hills Have Eyes” (1977/2006): It’s never explicitly stated in the original Wes Craven horror classic, but it's strongly implied that the family of deformed cannibals who terrorize an average American clan driving through the Nevada desert (New Mexico in the remake) are at least partially the product of nuclear testing – either that or a rough weekend in Vegas.
“C.H.U.D.” (1984): Homeless people living in the many abandoned subway tunnels of New York come into contact with radioactive waste secretly dumped there by the Nuclear Regulatory Committee. The homeless are transformed into cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers, mayhem ensues, and a cheesy cult horror classic is born.
“Threads” (1984): All joking aside, if you are going to see one movie that will absolutely scare the living crap out of you about nuclear war and fallout, this British production is the one. Difficult to see nowadays, it’s worth tracking down. It traces the aftermath of a nuclear war in England for 10 years after the attack – and by the end of the film, the question of whether the survivors and their descendants can even be deemed “human” is debatable.
"Chernobyl Diaries" is available on Blu-ray Combo pack, on DVD and for download now.