Chernobyl Diaries – viewing as an exercise in screenwriting

No experience in life is truly wasted. You can always learn something, and thus time and money spent are merely tuition you paid for that learning experience. So, while you might be tempted, after watching a truly awful film (like the one named above) to scream, “I want those two hours of my life back!”, you should remember there’s always something to learn. (You should also remember that truly awful films are often only 90 minutes, as, again the one named above is. That’s because the director, producer or the studio saw the two-hour cut and cried out to the heavens, “What hath I wrought?!” and tried to soften the blow by at least making the travesty rob one fewer half-hour of life from its viewers.)

So, watching Chernobyl Diaries, I learned how to produce “Chernobyl.” Seriously. I brought it into the house and asked, “Who wants to watch Churn-yo-bul Diaries?” And my kids both said, “What was that word you just said?” So, as I do when I’m accused of mispronouncing something, I looked it up. I usually discover that I pronounce things differently than my peers because I’m addicted to British television. In this case, though, it seems I pronounced this word differently because I formed the belief, at a young age, that all Russians pronounce words the way Pavel Chekov does. (Note: NO Russian pronounces any word the way Pavel Chekov does.) So, to be clear, it’s CherNObyl. And that’s how I’ll pronounce it from now on. Just like that. CherNObyl. (“No” is a great word to remember in relation to this film, by the way.)

There. Lesson learned. The end.

Oh, no that’s only 249 words. Let’s say more. Okay, how about let’s say that, when a film is really bad, when my suspension of disbelief has been hauled out back and beaten to death and back and then to death again by thugs, my writer’s brain kicks in and starts re-plotting the movie I’m watching. In Chernobyl Diaries, this started happening about 30 minutes in. One reviewer said, in fact, that you should only watch the first 30 minutes of this movie and then leave and write your own ending. I agree with him. Sadly, I never read a movie review until after I’ve seen the movie. Movie reviews tend to contain…


Yep, it’s all spoilers from here on out. Here’s a plot summary: Chris brings his girlfriend Natalie to Kiev to meet his estranged brother Paul. They bring Natalie’s friend Amanda because she’s had a bad breakup, and meeting Chris’s bad-boy brother is the worst thing that could happen to her, so they… um… bring her along… and tell him hands-off.

Yeah, it’s pretty clear from the get-go that Paul can’t spell the word “no,” and has never listened to Chris even once in his life. Like the first morning after their arrival, when, instead of showing them some cool onion towers and some statues and such, he decides to book his guests on a tour of Pripyat, the abandoned, radioactive town 3 Km from the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, where there was an explosion in 1986, resulting in a great deal of fallout, many, many deaths, and a 30-km radius of the Ukraine being closed off as an “exclusion zone.”

Everyone says no. Paul doesn’t listen. They get on a bus, drive to Pripyat, are told they can’t enter, even though Uri, their tour guide, allegedly is authorized to bring tourists. They go in anyway. They visit an abandoned apartment, where Uri hides evidence of a recent camp fire. They take pictures. They’re bad creeped out. They decide to leave. (Facts: While Pripyat has been open to tourists on and off since the accident, visitors are not allowed in the buildings, due to structural instability and the chance of pockets of fallout. And, indeed, visitors to Pripyat do report experiencing deep feelings of dread and depression, which sound like anxiety attacks. A lot of people leave early.)

They go to leave. The van won’t start. Uri opens the engine compartment, and finds, on a vehicle which shows no signs of tampering or forced entry, that the spark plug wires have been eaten. It’s still light out, and no one answers when Uri calls for help on a walkie talkie (uh, because he has the other one with him?) So our four heroes and two Australians who are along for the ride argue until sundown. Once it’s good and dark they hear noises, and Uri goes to investigate. A few minutes later, Chris decides Uri shouldn’t be alone and runs after him. Gunshots. Screams. The others run to the rescue. Uri’s gone. Chris’s leg has been chewn. Time for bed.

The next morning they go find Uri’s mangled body, retrieve his gun, then split up. Four of them start the long walk for the border 20 km away, and Chris and Natalie stay in the van. Ten minutes into their walk, the advance party finds a junkyard and spark plug wires for their van. They head back. The return trip, for reasons not explained, takes them five or six hours. It’s dark when they get back. The van has been overturned. Chris and Natalie are gone. They watch a video, in which Chris shows Natalie the engagement ring he’s carrying, and then the van gets flipped. Chaos ensues.

In one of the buildings, they find Natalie. Then a perfect healthy little girl appears. She won’t speak to them. While they’re trying to talk to her, they lose Natalie. They go looking for Natalie. They meet disfigured mutants. They run deeper into the tunnels under Pripyat. They lose the Australian guy. They run deeper. They lose the Australian girl. Paul and Amanda are now being pursued by a mob of mutants. They run in darkness. They find Chris’s engagement ring. They come out a door. They are… wait for it… inside the reactor complex at Chernobyl. Their faces are burning. Paul goes blind. They find Natalie. She’s dead.

Okay, so… First of all, there was no time in this very depressing chase scene for these characters to jog 3 km in winding tunnels, even assuming that there a tunnel from the Pripyat civic center to the reactor complex. Second, the reactor complex is actually much safer vis a vis radiation than the town of Pripyat. Remember, it was still a working power plant for many years after the accident. It’s mostly made of inorganic materials which don’t trap fallout like, say, trees do. The only unsafe place in the complex is on top of the sarcophagus which covers the ill-fated Reactor #4. That’s radioactive. The rest is not.

Okay, so Paul and Amanda stumble out another door, where they’re confronted by troops in anti-radiation gear who demand, in Russian, “Stop, or we’ll shoot.” Because they’re irradiated, of course, and thus a threat. Paul, the only character in the film who speaks Russian, other than the actual Russians, runs forward anyway and dies. Amanda, still radioactive, is just as quickly picked up and carried out. Um… so they… kill Paul because… um….

Amanda wakes up in a hospital, where doctors say they’re going to help her. Then, in Russian, they reveal that they’ve now re-captured all “the Patients” (the mutants who were wandering the streets of Pripyat) and Amanda saw them, so she can’t leave. She knows too much. So, instead of just giving her a lethal injection or shooting her in the head, they throw her in a cell with all “the Patients,” who proceed to dine upon her.

Questions abound: Why is it a diary? It’s not a diary, much less plural diaries. Rumor has it this was originally intended to be a found footage film, a la The Blair Witch Project. They changed their minds because this format was, um… better. Where did the little girl come from? Who was she? Not a clue. This healthy, if apparently deaf, little girl was key to advertising the film, and distracted the gang so Natalie could die. Otherwise she serves no purpose. Her presence reveals no new information, and doesn’t deepen the mystery except in a “what the hell” kind way. We never see her or hear her referred to again. What did these people want? They were supposedly either victims of radiation poisoning (and not from the original incident. All direct victims of fallout died within days) or they were subjects of some insidious experiment. But what did they want? I was kidding about dining on Amanda. They don’t actually eat anyone during the film. They may… or do… bite. But then they kill their victims, bloody them a lot, and leave them. So they don’t want food. They just want to kill everyone they see. Do they kill each other? Guess not, since they’re all kept in on cell. So they want to kill anyone who isn’t like them.

What happened to Paul’s storyline? A lot is made of the fact that Paul has always gotten Chris in trouble. He knows this. He’s determined, once Chris disappears, to save Chris or die trying. He does neither. Well, he dies, but not trying to save Chris, not really. He just dies. Stupidly. His storyline is never resolved. He gains nothing, learns nothing, accomplishes nothing. A successful movie script is supposed to be able to be summed up thusly: “North by Northwest is about a man who wants to prove he’s not a double agent.” Paul is longest-lived of the principals, so he must be the protagonist. (Although Uri and the Australian girl who dies midway are credited as the stars, for unknown reasons.) But sum this movie up? “It’s about a man who wants to save his brother.” Okay. But then he doesn’t save his brother, and he changes nothing and learns nothing as he dies stupidly.

What happened to Chris? Nobody knows. Why did they throw Amanda in the cell? Cause it’s shocking? Let’s go with that. Shock qua shock is not storytelling. It sells a lot of Marvel and DC comics these days, but it’s not storytelling.

Who were the Patients? They can’t be original survivors. The “viral video” made to promote the movie suggests they’re the subjects of secret experiments. We infer that they escaped from confinement shortly before the movie began, and that Uri just brought his latest tour group on the wrong day. My wife suggested that the Patients were previous customers of Uri’s and that he was bringing victims to the mad scientists. This is supported by the fact that Uri hides evidence of a fire. He doesn’t want his latest victims to know that some of his previous customers spent the night here. But it’s not supported by any internal logic. (Nothing in this film is.) If Uri is bringing victims, why do the authorities turn him away? Why would they care if the victims are caught by other, escaped victims? Why would they even discuss whether or not Amanda could go free at the end, if all visitors become patients? And why do they abandon Uri to die?

Here’s some suggestions, and I wish someone had asked me before this fascinating premise was wasted on such a terrible story:

– The “Patients” are previous customers. We find this out when Chris, kidnapped early, shows up later as a bald, radioactive madman. (Could be Uri, as well, if you want to spare Chris, or let him die unchanged.) Also, foreshadow this. Have the “Patients” or “Zombies” or whoever they are be seen to be wearing something that suggests who they used to be–touristy t-shirts, or something that links them back to Uri. Have Uri give out cheesy T-shirts as the tour starts. Our heroes can refuse to wear them, but then we see them on the zombies.

– It’s established early that the mad scientists have enough customers. In Russian, a guard tells Uri, “We told you, no more. Not now. Maybe not ever.” Paul could overhear this and wonder what the hell is up. When Uri bucks the authorities, this gives them motivation to let him die.

– The little girl needs an explanation and a back story. She should show up often, glimpsed from corners of eyes at first. She should be there at the end when the story is resolved. If she’s a ghost, give her a reason to be a ghost. No children died in Pripyat, not as a result of the accident. If you want her to represent the innocents affected by this tragedy, give her a face, a name or at least a story. Have the characters learn something that at least points to why she might be there.

– Whether Chris lives or dies, and assuming you want all these characters to die, Paul should die trying to help his brother. His death should be his redemption for all the horrible things he’s done to Chris. Could be very poignant to have him die saving zombie Chris. Let Zombie Chris live and be taken back into captivity at the end, his ruined lips trying to form the word, “Paul,” or “Brother.” Without something like this, Paul’s angst about always being the one who got Chris in trouble isn’t pathos, it’s just pathetic.

– And you have to, have to, HAVE TO give the zombie patients motivation. They need to be characters. If they’re not, a la The Walking Dead, then you need a nemesis who has motivation. Guys who show up in the last five minutes and kill the survivor are not a nemesis, they’re a plot device. The nemesis is supposed to be such that, in the course of trying to achieve his goal, the protagonist (Paul) learns or shows how he is like his opponent, and different from his friends (the Reflections. Not, they’re not a musical group. Well, maybe they are. But Hero/Protagonist, Nemesis and Reflection are the screenwriter’s triumvirate. The story concludes when this epiphany comes: “I’m actually a lot like Blofeld, and not so much like you, Felix Leiter.” This film has no nemesis. It just has obstacles.

– Finally, the real horror of Chernobyl is very real, and it’s not zombies or secret experiments. It’s that an unsafe facility was built too fast with sub-standard materials, and then run by people who didn’t observe proper safety precautions, who admitted themselves that they put “the enterprise” ahead of “the people.” They let firefighters run into a radioactive blaze without telling them there was radiation, and they sent men to their deaths to investigate the state of a failing reactor, not even equipped with a dosimeter to let them know that they were in danger. (And then they disregarded the information men died for, and kept pumping water in when they shouldn’t.) Because of all of this incompetence, not only did 31 people die quickly, untold scores more have died or suffered and will die or suffer of cancers they should not have contracted. That horror should have been brought out, out of respect for the victims. It wasn’t.

Nothing profound here. Don’t waste your time on this movie. If you do see it, see it as an example of how many things can go wrong with a story when the writers don’t have a clue what a story is.

Oh, and learn how to pronounce CherNObyl.

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2 thoughts on “Chernobyl Diaries – viewing as an exercise in screenwriting

  1. You are 100% right. This movie ended while leaving too many mysterious questions (PS: I’m not saying it should have a happy ending), but like either Paul or Amanda should have survived. Also, how did the military know that they should go to the reactor, I mean like when Uri tried to call for help no one answered. It’s an “acceptable” movie (setting, based on some real mysteries, but the ending was an epic fail.

  2. I don’t know if u even check these but two points. One they where cannibals it’s very clear that the first mutant was eating uri. Two the little girl was clearly a mannequin facing away from them, you could tell after a few seconds, that’s why she looked healthy to you.

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