Reviews for the Easily Distracted

Reviews for the Easily Distracted:
Chernobyl Diaries

Title: Chernobyl Diaries

Is This Anything Like The Princess Diaries? Chernobyl Diaries has fewer mutants.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant to the Film: One and a half cooling towers out of five.

Brief Plot Synopsis: Stupid tourists sneak into site of nuclear disaster, are justifiably murdered.

Tagline: "Experience the fallout."

Seriously? That's the Worst Thing I Ever Heard. At least it wasn't "FEEL THE BURN."

Better Tagline: "Not necessarily beautiful, but mutated."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: There's no tourism like extreme tourism, and that's just the ticket for Paul (Jonathan Sadowski doing his best Bradley Whitford), his reluctant little brother Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (a satisfyingly bouncy Olivia Dudley) and her friend Amanda (Devin Kelley), who are visiting Paul at his new digs in Kiev. Why go to boring old Moscow, where nothing historic ever happened, when you can instead check out the site of one of the only Level 7 International Nuclear Events of all time? So what if the area won't be habitable for 20,000 years; poking around the ruins of the reactor and surrounding communities, source of so much tragedy, would be a hoot. So with local guide Uri leading the way and late-arriving backpackers Michael and Zoe tagging along, they set off for adventure. What's that? The startlingly humongous guards aren't letting anyone in today? That's cool, Uri has a secret entrance. Unfortunately (and no surprise to anyone passingly familiar with producer Oren Peli's other properties, including the Paranormal Activity series), there are other things besides birds and three-eyed fish near them thar cooling towers.

"Critical" Analysis: Is anybody tired of this shit yet?

Paranormal Activity surprised a lot of people. Shot for $15,000, it's gone on to be one of the most profitable movies of all time, alongside its found-footage inspiration, The Blair Witch Project. Since the original PA's release, creator Oren Peli has developed two sequels (a third is on the way later this year) and created the failed TV series The River, which featured the novelty of a bunch of people terrorized by barely glimpsed figures while on a boat.

Give the man his due, he knows how to milk a property for absolutely everything it's worth. All together, the Paranormal Activity series has grossed almost $600 million. There's obviously not much incentive to stray from this particular formula, and former visual effects supervisor Brad Parker has given us what is essentially ParaSoviet Activity.

It's not found footage per se, but shot in a familiar shaky-cam style that makes the proceedings feel documentary-ish while simultaneously diminishing what few scares are to be had. Though to be fair, One Trick Peli's protégé Parker can't resist including a scene shot on one of the character's Handycams, in spite of the poor timing: "Hey, everyone, let's ignore the encroaching terror and sit around watching this video I just found!" It joins other such Peli trademarks as the Creepy Motionless Kid and the Female Character Dragged Off-Screen by Unseen Hands.

But christ is the jump-scare thing played out. Granted, there's a certain visceral jolt that comes from something popping up on screen and making you dump your Coke on your date, but it's cheap. More to the point, it's not really *horror*. I miss movies that convey actual dread, and while the desolate setting of Chernobyl Diaries is indeed disquieting, events eventually devolve into bland predictability. Mutants? Near Chernobyl? You don't say.

And now that I mention it, the setting itself is a problem. The Chernobyl disaster killed thousands and is still causing suffering and hardship to millions affected by the incident in Ukraine and Belarus, yet to Parker and company it's merely a gimmick to squeeze a few more bucks from the dwindling population of moviegoers not yet bored out of their minds by idiots venturing into catacombs in the black of night.

It's possible to produce a solid horror film that also makes a statement about the dangers of nuclear power. The first one was called Godzilla, and for all the cheesiness brought about by a guy in a rubber suit and Raymond Burr, it was still a surprisingly frightening movie. Chernobyl Diaries is just the same old crap with a vaguely topical sheen.

Chernobyl Diaries is in theaters now. Have you seen The Avengers yet? You really should.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar