Chernobyl Diaries (2012)
Recently I have found a new fascination in abandoned locations around the world. Of course the most famous is Chernobyl in the Ukraine. It is fascinating to me to imagine a city that was abandoned in 2 days. What is still there? Have others looted it by now or is everything undisturbed? From what I hear, the new Diehard movie goes there (I have not seen it yet).
I had seen the trailers for Chernobyl Diaries and have to admit that the B-movie lover in me was intrigued. I like these types of films – Wrong Turn, The Hills Have Eyes, and all those terrible sequels. I love their creepiness, their grittiness and their cheesiness. I have no high expectations for any of these types of movies to be Earth-shattering, but I expect them to at least have some entertainment value. Admittedly, I am easily entertained.
Based on what I saw, however, I was expecting another “found-footage” film. Since the movie, The Blair Witch Project, found-footage style films have been all the rage in the horror genre. Movies like VHS, Cloverfield and Quarantine have all perpetuated the genre. I’ll be honest with you, I am not a fan. The only film that I have seen that did it in such a way that I could tolerate it was Chronicle
After watching Chernobyl Diaries, I get the feeling that either they planned to do it as a found-footage film but realized that the plot would not allow it to make sense (meaning the ending would not have left anything to be found). Either that or they wanted to just emulate the style without actually being a found-footage movie. Whatever the case, it is not a found-footage film, although much of the film is shot with a hand-held camera, as if you were the fifth member of the party filming this whole thing. It’s not as dizzying or annoying as actual found-footage films, however.
Chernobyl Diaries packed no huge surprises and was about as predictable as any movie like it. I was more fascinated by the location and what they were going to do with it. The story is very stereotypical – 3 twenty-something kids who are travelling in Europe meet up with another (the older brother of the guy in the group of three) and decide to go on an “extreme tour” of Pripyat, the abandoned town near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. What could go wrong? They are assured that the radiation is low enough that a day visit won’t affect them, but they are also told they can never go near the power plant (yup, you guessed it! Foreshadowing!
They spend a little time establishing relationships, so you can care about these victims… oh, I mean characters. Then they bring in two more to make things interesting. Cap it off with an ex-military tour guide who “works alone” (so that when they need rescue, it turns out no one else knows they are there … awesome!), and you have a van full of meat bags for whatever beasties to feed on. It turns out that the town is sealed off by government forces for “maintenance” and the “extreme tourists” decide to find another way in.
To follow is a fun-filled tour of abandoned buildings and slightly spooky moments. IMDB says the filming locations were Hungary and Serbia, so whatever town they found to make look like Pripyat was done well. There were several iconic scenes taken from commonly found photos of Pripyat that they found a way to shoot rather brilliantly. From that point of view, it’s a pretty cool movie. The locations were awesome.
Of course, things go downhill fairly fast. Once the van is found to be sabotaged, they are forced to stay over-night with hopes of fixing the van in the morning or walking back the way they came. That night is filled with creepy sounds and screaming girlfriends. Eventually, they encounter a pack of wild dogs that injures one of the characters badly and apparently kills the other. However, you are led to believe by the ravings of the wounded character that there is “something else out there” and that there are “a lot of them.”
The “something else” turns out to be mutant cannibals that you never really get a clear view of (primarily because of the hand-held camera style of filming). You are not really given any explanation for them or why the “tour guide” never saw them before but there are quite a few of them and they are sneaky, intelligent and ravenous. One by one, the group is picked off by these creatures. The survivors are chased throughout the abandoned city until the last survivors are herded to where? Can you guess? The power plant! Good guess! They even conveniently CGI’ed cooling towers that resemble those at the American plants like 3-mile Island (Harrisburg, Pa.), which by the way, the real Chernobyl plant does not have.
Not too give too much away but the movie does not end well for anyone. In the final scenes of the movie, an explanation is implied for the mutants – they are escaped experiments from some super secret hospital and the staff will do anything to cover that up.
I wasn’t going to write about this movie until I really got to thinking about it. There are some small nuggets of genius in there, at least from a role playing game GMs’ point of view.
- Abandoned places: Commonly used in fantasy (abandoned castles, dungeons, etc), they also can be used in other genres just as effectively. Some of my favorites that I use in my sci-fi settings are abandoned space stations or star ships or abandoned colonies. In modern settings, just use the internet and look for famous abandoned places. Pripyat is just one of many very cool abandoned places. Some of my most favorite abandoned places are asylums. Look up places like Danvers State Hospital (sadly recently demolished), The Maunsell Sea Forts in England, abandoned city of Keelung, or the North Brother Island near New York City. These could be great settings for horror or pulp settings.
- Using Disaster Sites As Cover: A disaster zone is another fascinating location that can be used across the genres. In modern and sci-fi settings, a disaster zone is fairly easy to come up with. In fantasy, they can be places where some magic experiment went wrong, or a portal collapsed or a where a mystical being was killed. Now, take these locations and imagine someone else using them to cover up something dark and sinister. In this movie, apparently this “hospital” was conducting experiments near Pripyat, presumably because they assumed no one would find them in the ruins of the abandoned city. So imagine what kind of strange and dark experiments or rituals could be going on at a site of a disaster.
- Extreme Tours: Apparently (with a simple internet search) these really exist for Chernobyl. A few hundred dollars and even you can tour an irradiated abandoned city and walk dangerously close to the plant itself. What could go wrong? The answer to that question is the foundation to many great adventures for a GM. Take the players on an extreme tour somewhere. Give them some sense of safety and then rip it away with strange circumstances and let them figure a way out on their own. Perhaps not a common plot point for fantasy, I know, but not unheard of. In other settings, these could be easily used.
- Mixture of natural and supernatural: In many cases, movies like this rely only on the supernatural threat to scare you and hamper the main characters. In many cases however, there are natural threats that can be just as scary or hampering as the supernatural. The use of the wild dogs in this movie was rather refreshing. It wasn’t for just a one-off easy scare moment. They used them multiple times as a secondary threat to trouble the characters and force them into a corner. This is not so much a plot idea but an adventure tool that can help your adventure seem more believable.
About the author
Ron McClung (Ron McClung)
Gaming Coordinator for all MACE events. Former writer for GamingReport.com and Scrye Magazine.