15 Sep 2014
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Scary Soviet Situation

"The Chernobyl Diaries" follows the formula but still delivers.

Scary Soviet Situation

In The Chernobyl Diaries, viewers are forced to answer the proverbial question, “Would you rather die from a pack of angry wild dogs, from injuries sustained while running through a nuclear reactor that suffered a horrific meltdown, or from the psychotic, nuke-addled residents that live near that reactor?”

Back in the go-go mid-'90s, a coworker and I found an adventure travel company that offered thrillseekers the chance to climb Devil’s Tower, that monolithic, chimney-shaped mountain thingy in Wyoming memorialized in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We were going to climb it and get up on the top and play Wiffle Ball.

I’m glad we never made it, for if we’re to believe the adventure travel postulates presented in The Chernobyl Diaries, both of us would have been abducted and wound up as E.T.’s dinner: Adventure travel equals big-time trouble.

In this one, a group of six young people (two brothers, one’s soon-to-be fiancée, her friend and two strangers) meet up in Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine, and decide to take a fun-filled day trip to Pripyat, the abandoned town nearest the nuclear plant of Chernobyl, which suffered a horrific meltdown in the fateful year of 1986 (other famous meltdowns of that year include that of the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, partially ignited by first basemen Bill Buckner, separated at birth from Will County State’s Attorney James “Jimmy the Hairdo” Glasgow).

Despite bring filmed in the despised handheld camera technique, and despite the formulaic plot, The Chernobyl Diaries is a frighteningly enjoyable 90 minutes at the theater.

Apparently, the vacationers never watched an episode of Scooby-Doo, in which we’re warned time and again that “splitting up” in a time of crisis never works.

The septet (including a questionable Ukranian tour guide, which begs yet another question, “Why are we still painting survivors of the former Soviet bloc as bad guys? Haven’t they suffered enough?”) spends an afternoon in the former apartments that overlook the nuclear plant, and the trouble ahead is foreshadowed by a huge bear that lumbers through the dorm they’re in.

They retreat to the van they traveled in, which has more than a passing resemblance to the Mystery Machine from the aforementioned cartoon. Creepiness, partial dismemberment and death ensues after the Mystery Machine breaks down, and an eventual chase down miles of descending staircases and corridors — during which we’re confused as to what species is after them — leads to a nausea-inducing escape from Chernobyl Reactor 4. From my notes, on the endless downward chase: “If they keep going down, they’ll reach Minneapolis!”

The group is slowly reduced to a solitary survivor, who meets her fate at the hands of conspiratorial Eastern European doctors and/or military stand-ins. Once again, why the evil Eastern bloc contingency? I think it’s time for some Canadian evil-doers.

The prevailing lesson here is that you shouldn’t vacation anywhere that doesn’t feature a piece of chocolate on your pillow after room service. Also, I’ll never play the Nuke Nine golf course right near the Braidwood nuclear plant again at twilight — who knows what kind of Toxic Avenger-type creature will pop out of hole 8 when I five-putt it?

Quotable moments

“Imagine the photo shoot we could have there?” — Paul to Amanda, a budding photographer, on the prospect of visiting Chernobyl.

“We’re in Europe — we may as well see as much as we can” — Amanda, justifying a trip to the nuclear town.

“The Chernobyl disaster was a result of a failed systems test” — Tour director Uri, explaining the meltdown.

“It’s been 25 years. Only recently have radiation levels gone down” — Uri.

“It’s a hazard having you as a brother” — Chris to Paul, who suggested this ill-fated journey.

Other observations at the moviehouse

  • English majors unite: Fathom Events is bringing Shakespeare’s The Tempest to theaters near you soon. Here’s obligatory Who reference No. 1: Des McAnuff, who brought the Who’s Tommy to Broadway to much acclaim, is directing.
  • Obligatory Who reference No. 2: “Baba O’Riley,” the stadium-rock anthem from Who’s Next, is featured as theme music for the upcoming Resident Evil movie.
  • Lots of scary stuff is headed to the cinema this summer, so be advised: The Possession, The Apparition, but no The Covers (to hide under).
    The upcoming Magic Mike, featuring Channing Tatum, appears to be the Citizen Kane of male stripper movies.

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