Last month, a curious publicity campaign spread across the internet. “Quarantine your city!” said the tweets. The public was encouraged to go to a website where they could vote to have their home town declared a radioactive wasteland. Not wanting to be left out, I cast mine early. Within a few days, the needle on New York’s vote meter had spiked into the red, and a large radiation symbol was stamped on the map.
“New York, NY has been quarantined,” read the text underneath the meter. “Exclusive screenings of Chernobyl Diaries have been unlocked!” Thus did I score free tickets to an advance showing of Hollywood’s new Chernobyl-themed horror movie. And this only days after I published my own treatment of the subject. Hello, zeitgeist!
As you might expect, Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t exactly hew to the facts. Where would be the fun in that? In the movie, a group of tourists gets stranded while on a visit to the Exclusion Zone—the radioactive quarantine that surrounds the accident site. This isn’t so implausible as a premise; the Chernobyl authority recently reopened the zone for escorted day trips by tourists. And I’ve spent some time in the zone myself, which was one reason I was so eager to see how it would be portrayed.
The zone’s main attraction, in the movie as in real life, is Pripyat: a city of nearly fifty thousand people that was evacuated after the disaster. Today, you can wander the deserted streets, past crumbling apartment blocks and into empty classrooms, where school supplies still lie on the floor, moldering in the dust. The movie wasn’t actually shot in Pripyat, but from my own experience there I can tell you the art directors did a first-rate job recreating the place—right down to an abandoned toy car that I could have sworn I recognized from my own visit. And the characters in the movie are amazed, just as I was, by how fully the Exclusion Zone is being reclaimed by nature.
From there, however, the story begins its departures from reality: our feckless tourists are soon catching sight of mutant fish with giant teeth, and being harried by unusually large dogs, and finally—this isn’t really a spoiler—getting hunted down, one by one, by a troupe of bloodthirsty radioactive bogeymen. This differs notably from my own experience of the Exclusion Zone, which I found to be pleasantly free of mutant freaks.
It’s implied that the superhuman ghouls that are providing all the thrills and chills in this scenario are victims of the nuclear accident—perhaps even former residents of Pripyat. Exactly why they are driven to cannibalistic rage, or why almost all of them are corpulent bald men, are details the filmmakers do not see fit to explain. And did they really have to cast the disaster’s survivors as monsters? It’s like making a movie about the aftermath of 9/11 in which the first responders all become serial killers. A little rude, to say the least.
More than anything, though, Chernobyl Diaries is a reflection of our almost gleeful obsession with the effects of radiation. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a conversation about Chernobyl in which I wasn’t asked, only half jokingly, whether I saw any mutant animals in the Exclusion Zone. The popular assumption is that there simply must be some around. Similarly, most people assume that thousands of people died outright from radioactive exposure, that cancer in the region is pervasive, and that the accident left a well-documented legacy of congenital deformities among children in the area. And yet none of these things has been firmly established, and some of them are simply false. To take just one example, there are indeed effects on the wildlife in the zone—but they are subtle. There are no three-eyed fish or two-headed dogs. (And definitely no crazed thugs out for blood.)
Our obsession with deformity and cancer leads us to miss the most significant toll of the disaster: the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The people of Pripyat were uprooted from their lives with only a couple of hours notice; you would think that would be tragedy enough, especially with the health-related fear and uncertainty that comes with it. But this is far too unspectacular to satisfy our need for potent imagery.
Chernobyl Diaries, then, is exploitative and sensationalistic—but it’s not so different from the sensationalism that swirls around Chernobyl even in more sober contexts. Meanwhile, if you want something less suspenseful but more true, go watch Half-Lives. A beautiful short documentary directed by Maisie Crow, it is probably the single best piece of filmmaking ever done on the subject—and you can watch it online, for free. In it, the remarkably un-goulish former residents of Pripyat reflect on the legacy of the disaster.
The pain they feel most keenly? That they miss their old home.