Twenty-six years after the worst nuclear accident in history, Chernobyl is suddenly hot again — at least culturally. This weekend, "Chernobyl Diaries," a horror movie that follows a group of tourists on an excursion to the abandoned Ukrainian site of the meltdown, hits theaters just as a pollution travelogue by journalist Andrew Blackwell, "Visit Sunny Chernobyl," is arriving in bookstores.
The movie, co-written and produced by "Paranormal Activity" creator Oren Peli and directed by visual-effects supervisor and first-time feature filmmaker Brad Parker, was inspired by the very type of extreme tourism Blackwell undertakes in his nonfiction book: visits to ravaged, sometimes unexpectedly beautiful polluted sites around the world.
Blackwell canoed through Chernobyl while researching his book and also jogged in smoggy Linfen, China, and sailed for the swirling Pacific Ocean garbage patch, all in pursuit of a glimpse of the Earth's contaminated future.
The travelers in "Chernobyl Diaries" embark on a different sort of trip — more akin to disaster rubbernecking. Four Americans, played by Jonathan Sadowski, Jesse McCartney, Olivia Taylor Dudley and Devin Kelly, pack into a van with a former Soviet special forces soldier for an unauthorized day trip to Pripyat, the Ukrainian city that today resembles the set of a post-apocalyptic movie after it was hastily abandoned in the wake of the 1986 disaster.
At first the movie's scares are natural: intimidating guards, eerily overgrown buildings, a hungry bear. But, this being a Peli production, it soon becomes clear Pripyat is inhabited by some unusual and aggressive tenants.
The notion that Chernobyl, which led to radiation exposure for hundreds of thousands of people, has become the subject of a horror film is distasteful to some. There is a Facebook page boycotting the movie, for instance.
But Chernobyl tourism is a real phenomenon. According to the Lonely Planet, a day trip to Pripyat will cost an adventurer $100 to $300, and sightseeing opportunities include a never-used ferris wheel, some forgotten children's toys and sun-faded Soviet-era propaganda. As for the safety issues, the travel guide warns: " 'Hot spots' are scattered throughout the zone, so any visitors are advised to follow guides extremely carefully. No breaking off from the group for a bit of independent exploration here."
Reviews of "Chernobyl Diaries" seem equally foreboding. USA Today's Claudia Puig says, "Avoid a boredom meltdown and give this formulaic scarefest a wide berth." While writing for The Times, Mark Olsen warns, "The lack of suspense and surprise in this dispiritingly rote film becomes its own form of contamination."
— Rebecca Keegan
Photo: A scene from "Chernobyl Diaries." Credit: Warner Bros.