Thumped’s Random DVD Trip #13 – Chernobyl Diaries & Dredd

Thumped’s Random DVD trip: Wherein Hector Grey enters the Xtravision across the road and grabs the first couple of things that appear in the shelf. This week: Chernobyl Diaries & Dredd.

Dredd and Chernobyl Diaries both feature mutants. One can read your mind, and the other wants to eat it. But we’re one step ahead. We don’t have a mind.

Oren Peli doesn’t give a fuck what you think. As the creator of the Paranormal Activity franchise, he’s so rich, he has solid gold shoes. Paranormal Activity: an idea so ordinary if you or I came up with it we’d think, nah, they’ll never buy this crap, a camera, in a house, an unseen presence. It’s daft! It’s boring! But buy it they did, and for burlap sacks full of dosh. Hundreds upon hundreds of burlap sacks. Oren is bankable, because his films cost absolutely fuck all to make, and they prey on the obvious. All horror does that, to be fair, and to be further fair, the first Paranormal wasn’t bad. The other fifteen weren’t great. They weren’t bad. They just weren’t anything other than “found” footage of some idiot filming his own demise.

Chernobyl Diaries is borne of an idea Oren had to shoot a film in Pripyat, because, let’s face it, that place is pretty scary. Or as the man himself says: “like, if there was, you know, a crazy guy, you know, with a knife over there I’m like, okay, this is scary. I’m going to run the other way.” The man is a squizillionaire.

Pripyat, in case you don’t know, is a real abandoned city, once home to 50,000 people, left to decay. A city with all the attendant features, apartment blocks, restaurants, schools, a ferris wheel, a monument to hubris. In 1986, when Chernobyl farted out its own skeleton in a cloud of noxious green radiation, Pripyat, where lived the families and workers of the Chernobyl complex, was evacuated as quick as you like. The dead city contains remains of the civilisation that once resided there, echoes, objects, shadows. Each corridor is littered with debris, cars remain where they were last parked. A lot of people died, a lot more were fucked up. It’s a modern Atlantis, sunk beneath the waves of science, politics and secrecy.

Oren’s modus operandi is the handheld, found footage routine. We know how we feel about that, right? But as he’s not actually directing this one (Brad Parker is the helmsman), this is not the trick they’ve chosen to employ. However, as the camera work is all handheld, the idioms are the same, quick shots, dark lighting, fear being fleeting glances of..of what exactly? But without that nagging irritation of some goon holding a cam when he should be running for his life.

I approached this hoping for something good; if nothing else, an insight into the abandoned metropolis. By good I mean mildly diverting, perhaps with a neck tingling scare or two, maybe even a couple of characters who weren’t dicks. Well, that last one was never going to happen, granted, and that’s pretty obvious after about 50 seconds. But hey, that’s cool, at least I’ll see them die or get fucked up or something. Our protagonists are some American friends on a journey through Yurp, doing London and Paris and Prague and all the rest on their way to ending up in Kiev. Paul, the brother of Christopher, one of our chums, lives in Kiev, you see. They are to meet up and travel onto Moscow, where, oh! the humanity, Christopher will propose to his girlfriend, The Blond One With The Cleavage. You just know that ain’t gonna happen. Instead Paul introduces the crew to extreme tourism, a real thing, apparently, and takes them to his friend Yuri, who will drive them instead to Pripyat, for a once in a lifetime journey through a modern ghost town. An Australian and his Norwegian woman make up the numbers, and they clamber into Yuri’s van to begin their journey into the unknown. Ohhhhh, spooky.

Given the choice, I’d probably jump at the chance of a trip to Pripyat. It’s funny, what with the acting being so wooden, that our gang are out performed by something even more inanimate: bricks and mortar. They park next to the iconic, lonely ferris wheel and go exploring the eerie surroundings. At this point the setting should come into its own. The fuckedness of the place is awesome, and not in the way a teenager might think his trousers look, but properly awesome, a sprawl of a city, forsaken in such a way. Imagine, if you will, Galway without a living soul in it, the streets cracked by encroaching nature, the houses empty and debris strewn, windows cold and vacant. Yeah, it’s a good image, but here’s something scarier: where would all the crusties go? In a way, we need Galway to exist.

But here’s the clincher: it’s not Pripyat. It’s somewhere in Serbia, or Hungary. They’re not actually walking through the sepulchral buildings. That’s not the real ferris wheel. It’s CGI and set dressing. It’s a fucking gyp. That means what we’re left with is a plot, and there’s fuck all of that. The movie is very much in thrall to its own premise, to the surroundings, the city as the star, and it’s a fake. The actors are just there to take us through this scary place. But it’s not even the scary place it purports to be. So it’s all artifice. That’s okay, we know that’s how horror works, but you know what also works? Some plot, some characters, some fucking acting and some actual, real horror. Not some radioactive hillbillies. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre featured some mental hicks, who, once shorn of the industry that kept the town going all those years, cracked and started to eat tourists. It had a level beyond the mere horror, a parable about America’s decaying hinterland, about a peoples displaced by local factories closing down, about isolation. But crucially, it had horror. Where there’s an opportunity to pose a similar question in Chernobyl Diaries, about the destruction of a city, about nuclear power, about the fall of communism, it is, like the opportunity to actually make a decent film, utterly missed, and instead, like most American films that venture outside of America, we realise we’re not in Kansas anymore and squeeze our eyes shut, intoning “There’s no place like home” over and over.

Our nemeses in this yarn are mere spectres, white faced ghouls spied occasionally in the murky dark. It’s lazy and it’s cowardly, in its way. In fact, it’s arrogant. It says to us, we don’t need a story or real people, we don’t even need to turn your head with some special effects. It’s a chase flick, with an obvious ending, and it’s pretty much what I would have expected it to be, with the added punch in the belly of it not actually being Pripyat. But then, maybe that’s okay, after all, they didn’t use the real Titanic in the motion picture Titanic. Nor is it the real Mars in Total Recall. My incandescence is misplaced. Pripyat is a graveyard, not of corpses, but of ideals. Perhaps its best left alone. Maybe we don’t need to reminded that nearly 30 years ago a reactor blew up and ever since ordinary people have been dealing with its continued fall out: birth defects, cancers, displacement, and of course, chasing around wayward tourists, cos, let’s face it, that’s what mutants do, right?

Speaking of disappointment, it turns out Dredd is NOT the long awaited sequel to 1995’s blockbusting comedy and Sly-vehicle Judge Dredd. No Fair! Rather it’s a more faithful rendition of the titular hero. If hero is the right word here. After all Judge Dredd, the real one who lives in the future, is a right wing, ultra-violent fundamentalist. But, I suppose, he gets the job done. Let’s face it, we’d love a Judge Dredd on the streets, shooting knacker drinkers and those smiley pricks chugging for Concern. Dredd, after 15 years in the academy and twenty odd on the streets, has no time for the vagrancies of human vacillations. There’s merely what’s right and what’s wrong. He has the power to dispense instant judement for crimes committed. This also involves meting out the occasional death sentence. Now come on, how many taxi drivers have you wished that upon, as you struggle home on your BMX during a summer deluge, and they take an illegal turn just cos they can?

Where Sly’s ‘95 version of Dredd failed, if we may be so cruel, was on nearly every single point. Ironically, unlike the 2012, ahem “reboot”, they probably tried to cram in too much from the comic. Too many mangled characters and story lines. They blew their wad a little too early. Also, and let’s remember if we can the furore this caused, Sly wouldn’t keep the helmet on. The real Dredd, the one from the future, NEVER removed his lid. That was his thing. In fact, it was pretty much every Judges thing, unless they were good looking females, or part of psy division. In Dredd Karl Urban (apparently not a country and western singer, thank god) doesn’t remove the helmet, and has about 4 inches of face with which to emote. He does a good job, considering Dredd’s only outward emotion is, and has ever been, a stony faced bellicosity. Still, it’s an easy one to get wrong, just ask Sly.

Enough of Sly, his crimes are noted, and he has been judged. His punishment is to speak out of one side of his face for evermore. Urban’s Dredd is properly latern jawed, compassionless and efficient. He chases perps and punks down on his Lawmaster, and shares his bullets with a vigorous aplomb. He is monosyllabic and indestructible. In this film Dredd is paired up with perennial teenage onanism-fodder, Judge Anderson, she of the psychic powers. Anderson is just out of the academy, and wouldn’t have made it as a rookie if it were not for her remarkable powers of mind. She’s been given a chance to prove herself as Judge, by following JD around for a day and doing as she’s told. Any lack of decisiveness on her part and she will fail, she’s informed. And off they go.

Together they attend a crime scene in one of Mega City’s many mega-blocks where couple of lads have been chucked out of a 34 storey balcony. Some rudimentary detective work brings them to an apartment that’s being used as a drug den, where punks lie around and savour new mind altering narcotic ‘slo-mo’, a concoction that makes the brain feel as if time is passing at 100th of its usual pace. It’s a weird one that. Taking drugs is something usually done to alleviate the boredom of everyday drudgery, especially in Mega City One where unemployment is 1,000% or something. Why would you take a drug that would make your dull day 100 times longer. You wake up thinking that a week has passed and it’s time to collect your giro only to find out that 15 minutes have passed and you’ve nothing to eat for the next 6 days. ANYWAY. In a bid to stop the Judges leaving with a gang member, the blocks dominant crew lock down the building, trapping JD and Anderson inside, and setting a gang of to-the-tooth-armed gangbangers on their tail.

It’s pretty simple, and the film-makers save an absolute fortune on trying to recreate the streets and vistas of Mega City one by hardly venturing out to them. The overwhelming majority of the movie happens within the one block. Dredd is sufficiently merciless, the action is deliriously violent, it unravels at a grand pace and nothing unusual occurs. Of course nothing unusual occurs, Alex Garland wrote the script. What’s left for us, the sad approaching-middle-age men, is to pick over is the minutiae. The Lawmaster isn’t big enough, is it? Aren’t the wheels supposed to be 3 feet wide? What we have is some spiced up Suzukis. Well, it’s not a huge issue, they barely feature. Then there’s the uniform. The massive shoulder pads and boots were a feature, back in the day, but let’s face, they’re probably really impracticable for day to day policing. The Lawgiver, while INACCURATE, isn’t bad. The helmet is spot on though, isn’t it? In Judge Dredd’s world, the real Dredd who lives in the future that is, menial jobs are carried out by robots, but there’s none in this city. No robots? Lads, even Sly had robots. Rob Schneider, for a start, he’s some kind of autobot. And where’s Judge Death? When are we going to have a film with Judge Death in it? That would be deadly, wouldn’t it?

This is a movie for people who remember 2000AD from back in the day, from when its title still suggested the scary, exciting future, and not a time so many years hence we still had our hair and no children. That’s some future we made for ourselves. It’s a film by people who actually read the comic, and have treated it with the respect it deserves, or rather, the respect its many millions of fans feel it deserves. But it’s also a film in which fuck all really happens. If we were to take out the shooting, there’s not much of a story, and as we discussed early on, Urban doesn’t really have to act. Nobody really does. We’re dropped into this assuming we’re already au fait with the characters, because if you weren’t, you wonder why they’ve bothered to make a film about an uncompromising megalomaniac police man with an itchy trigger finger. But if you were that way inclined, you’d have asked yourself the very same question about Dirty Harry. Maybe that’s why it seems so difficult to recreate Judge Dredd on the large screen, because the premise has been done, hundreds of times before. You know what’s yet to be done? Judge Death. Jus saying.

However it’s good that they can take a comic character and gives us a movie that isn’t just beautifully dressed recreations of 2d artwork already seen on the page, as if we can’t for a second, fill in the blanks with our own minds. The fact that this movie isn’t terrible is a huge improvement on the last attempt, it’s just that it could have been better. But then again, Judge Dredd, the real, two dimensional one who lives in the future, isn’t a two dimensional character. He’s a one dimensional character, and the real meat and drink of his saga is the world he’s trying apply order to. In this film that world, and its inhabitants, are too small, and thus, so is the film. You have been judged, the sentence is, not bad, but not grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreat.

They better have Judge Death in the next one.

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