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Please note: there are some mild spoilers for Chernobyl Diaries in this article.
In preparation for viewing – and doing coverage on – Ridley Scott’s impending Prometheus, I recently splurged and purchased the Alien Anthology box set on Blu-ray. This marked the first time I had seen the original Alien in something like 15 years, and I was taken aback by how, on the one hand, the movie had retained its effectiveness as a filmic experience but how, on the other, it is severely lacking as a narrative endeavor. The entirety of the story is simply watching a group of seven individuals be picked off one by one by a barely-seen creature; the only closure offered is simply seeing the protagonist survive. “A haunted house in space,” Ridley Scott called it – and indeed it is, offering the same degree of storytelling scope (albeit with masterful cinematic finesse, both in its direction and in its performances).
I bring up Scott and his classic because it was the first thought that sprung to mind upon leaving the theater last night. Watching Oren Peli’s latest horror production cannot help but induce a strong sense of déjà vu; even though it was released some 33 years after Alien, Chernobyl Diaries follows the same playbook every step of the way, from scrappy opening intra-group dynamics (among seven cast members, incidentally) to sole-survivor finale (who only just slips past barely-seen creatures). Swap out the haunted starship for a Soviet ghost town, and throw in some heavy metal for Jerry Goldsmith’s elegant score, and you’re all set.
All of which is not to downplay the movie’s strengths – and there are many. The premise is exceedingly clever, the actors fit the film like a glove, the docu-style cinematography is superbly handled, and the location(s) shot at is not only both creepy and beautiful, it is also an exact match for the town of Prypiat. A filmmaker couldn’t ask for a better framework to insert his painting into… although there is always the risk of it overshadowing the actual artwork, should it prove to be of a lesser craftsmanship – which is, unfortunately and more often than not, what happens here.
(There are also a fair number of nitpicks, such as the nebulous Scary Monsters possessing all manner of frightening attributes even if they don’t necessarily all add up; they are big and loud and slow as well as small and quiet and fast, for example. They also sometimes employ rather complex strategies, such as, say, distracting most of the party members in order to pick off the injured, even though no societal underpinnings are ever implied. It was actually a rather shrewd move for Peli and company to leave the adversaries so abstract – it certainly helps more than it hinders, believe it or not – but, at the same time, they cannot have their cake and eat it, too, unfortunately.)
Regardless of Chernobyl’s overall level of polish, however, the question still has to be asked: is this all horror has to offer? Where is the theme, whether it be as remedial as “man versus nature” or as elaborately developed as the Matrix trilogy’s motif of doors/passageways/choices? Where is the character development that is so central to Signs? Cloverfield, another of the recent found-footage/cinema-verite horror entries, went to great lengths to define and explore its characters – even going so far as to invent a little found-footage gimmick to insert flashbacks – and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece The Shining still stands as a high watermark for how to balance all narrative elements while still delivering a chilling experience.
I’m actually not much of a fan for the genre, truth be told – and I’ll never consent to sit down and watch two hours of straight gore or outright torture, making many of the “must-sees,” like the infamous Hostels, always beyond me – so these questions are genuine as opposed to weighted in nature. Why can’t horror be more than just the sum of its parts? In the realm of sci-fi, what would Blade Runner be without its emphasis on the human condition, or Battlestar Galactica without its political commentary and social satire? What makes Night of the Living Dead so longstanding is not its cadre of undead baddies, though that certainly doesn’t hurt, but, rather, its brilliant and unflinching ending.
Is Chernobyl Diaries worth your time and, more importantly, your money? More than likely, yes; it is, after all, an experience that is constructed of finer materials than Saw or most of the other dreck that Hollywood is so insistent on pumping out summer after summer. But it is still just an “experience,” on par with a theme park attraction as opposed to a really good novel – much like Paranormal Activity, come to think of it, although much (and less) has come of that particular undertaking.
It’ll be interesting to see what Oren Peli has up his sleeve next, as it could be the deciding factor not only in determining what his cinematic legacy will be, but also in what trajectory the horror genre will likely go for the next 30-odd years.
[Marc N. Kleinhenz has written for 18 sites, including IGN, Theme Park Insider, and Westeros. If you liked his ability to chair a roundtable, be sure to check out It Is Known: An Analysis of Thrones, Vol. I, his recently-released ebook that contains a couple of Game of Thrones discussions with the likes of Time magazine’s James Poniewozik.]