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Chernobyl Causes: At What Point Exploitation?

This week sees the release of The Chernobyl Diaries, a horror film from producer Oren Peli, the filmamker who gave us the superb Paranormal Activity. However, I can’t help wonder if it is a little “too soon”for a horror based around the nuclear disaster that occurred in the Ukraine in 1986. It has been over a quarter of the century since disaster occurred, and yet I’d be lying if there wasn’t a faint sense of exploitation around the film, which sees a bunch of kids (American, naturally) touring the site of the catastrophe and uncovering all manner of unpleasantness. Still, it isn’t the only exploitation horror ever made, and I can’t help but wonder when a subject is or isn’t fair game.

Real-life horror…

It should also be noted that it isn’t just The Chernobyl Diaries that is treating the event as “fair game.” Last year’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon featured an awkward scene at the location of the disaster, just adding to the weird jingoistic feeling of film. In a film that featured alien robots sneaking out at night to dismantle the Iranian nuclear programme, the sequences at Chernobyl still managed to feel incredibly awkward. They featured the American team uncovering ancient alien technology at the site. Despite the massive impact that the tragedy has had, to the point where it has become a watchword for nuclear tragedy and perhaps the elephant in the room on any debate about nuclear power, the summer blockbuster just treated it as a generic exotic foreign locale that the CGI robots could tear through with impunity.

Of course, don’t get me wrong here. You can make any number of arguments about the exploitation of tragedies to put bums in movie seats. Even escaping the genres of “dumb summer blockbuster” and “exploitation horror”, there are any number of mainstream critical and commercial successes that could be argued to exploit tragedy for their own gain. James Cameron’s Titanic is perhaps the most successful example, using the maritime disaster as a backdrop to his fairly standard romantic drama of class. That disaster has been well-mined, with its centenary this year serving as a flashpoint for all manner of commercial exploitation – whether for tourism or television and film.

A completely faithful exploration…

You could, of course, argue the same thing about Jack the Ripper. The anonymous serial killer has been the subject of any number of non-fiction works, but he’s also served as the villain of countless works of fiction. Stories like From Hell indulge in all manner of unpleasant conspiracy theories involving the royal family, while Star Trek even suggested that the character was a disconnected spirit of evil. Time After Time featured H.G. Wells matching wits with the killer across time and space. None of these portrayals could be said to be especially sensitive to any of his victims or to those accused of being the killer.

Of course, such events are insulated from us by history. Anyone involved in the Jack the Ripper case is long dead. The last known survivor of the Titanic died years ago. As such, it probably doesn’t feel too strange to revisit these historical events for the purposes of popular entertainment. On the other hand, the Chernobyl disaster is relatively recent, and people are still living suffering from the consequences of that incident. (And they will do so for years.)

Too close for comfort?

That said, it hasn’t stopped studios from exploiting more recent tragedies for cheap emotional pay-off. Within the past year or so we’ve seen several major motion pictures exploiting the attacks of 9/11 in order to get a cheap emotional hook. There’s one movie that uses it as a final twist. (I won’t spoil it by mentioning it here.) However, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close got a well-deserved attack from critics for reducing the event and its implications to a shallow sequence of “all come together” vignettes.

Of course, maybe it’s not the when that’s the issue. Maybe it’s how we approach these events that define whether a movie featuring them can be in good taste or not. There is an argument to be made that any adaptation treating the events with the respect they deserve can’t be in poor taste. To use another Michael Bay example,Pearl Harbour was set during an attack that took place half-a-century earlier, which one might imagine would be well past the statute of limitations on such things. However, Bay came (deservedly) under fire from critics foralmost rewriting history.

Watered down history?

Watching the film, it almost seems like Bay allowed America to win Pearl Harbour by choosing to incorporate the largely symbolic Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. Naturally, he avoided the more historically and strategically important conflicts that followed, in order to allow audiences to leave with the impression that things had nicely sorted themselves out, and avoiding any real implications of the attack. If he wanted to just document the attack, he should have done so, but picking and choosing what else to include leaves a bad taste.

Some people might argue that it’s the nature of the work itself that can be exploitative. For example, The Chernobyl Diaries is an uncomfortable piece of exploitation because it doesn’t just insert fictionalised characters into a real-world situation. Instead, it suggests all manner of unseemly things about the aftermath of the attack. Being a horror film involving nuclear radiation, it naturally includes mutants. I am convinced that telling you that is not a spoiler, seen as it shouldn’t be too difficult to piece together. As such, it could be argued that the film goes “too far” with the reality of the situation, playing into crass genre conventions using the massive loss of human life as a springboard.

The DeValera you know…

That said, this isn’t something restricted to horror films exclusively. After all, Fox had to apologise for the portayal of one historical individual in Titanic, going so far as to fly half way around the world to apologise in person to his family. (Interestingly, the scene was not excised from the re-released 3D edition of the film.) Similarly, many movies tend to upgrade real people to the status of cartoon villains – notably the portrayal of Eamon DeValera in Michael Collins or Max Baer in Cinderella Man. I think it’s reasonable to argue that these portrayals – rarely flagged within the films themselves as fictional – are far more damaging than the use of stereotypical science-fiction and horror conventions.

After all, very few people believe that – as The Hills Have Eyes might suggest – that nuclear testing in Arizona produced a race of violent anti-social mutants. They are far more likely to believe that the “bad guy” in that depression-era boxing movie really did enjoy causing pain and suffering, rather than the more honest suggestion that Baer felt guilty for the accidental death of his opponent – to the point where he spent his life trying to atone for it.

All cut up…

I, personally, tend to be a bit more forgiving of horror films than most. After all, some people (and critics) seem to treat the genre as a lazy money-maker, churning out sexist and exploitative gore-fests in order to make a quick buck from a young and stupid audience. To be fair, I can’t argue that some movies aren’t just cynical cash-ins. After all, who can forget all those horrible, horrible sequels to genuinely clever and impressive films like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street? I think that while a lot of horror movies might be cynical and exploitative, there are quite a few that aren’t, and it’s cynical to dismiss the genre out of hand.

In particular, I’d argue that horror tends to react a lot more viscerally – and, perhaps, a lot more honestly – to the fears and concerns of regular people. After all, it was through cheesy fifties and sixties horror and science-fiction that atomic age paranoia well and truly expressed itself, with creature features like Them! or Attack of the 50 Foot Woman or countless others. None of them wwere anywhere near as deftly constructed as Dr. Strangelove, but I think that they spoke to a popular consciousness that the mainstream couldn’t.

Stranger things have happened…

I don’t know, maybe I am trying to make excuses, but I’m not sure that I can roundly condemn The Chernobyl Diaries, at least before I see it. It might serve to vent a lot of the uncertainties and anxieties that people are feeling in the wake of the recent Fukushima disaster, fears that are probably gnawing away at people in the ea where marketing firms use “greenwashing” to replace the label “nuclear energy” with the more crowd-friendly “carbon-free energy.” EDF energy has been accused of this.

Of course, I could be wrong. It is highly possible and probably more than likely that The Chernobyl Diaries is a crass exploitation film made in bad taste about a disaster that is far too recent to be exploited in such a manner. Indeed, it seems like various charities and support groups set up after the disaster seem similarly divided. Still, I can’t help but give it the benefit of the doubt, as I wonder had the hard and fast criteria are for constructing movies featuring these sort of events.

4 Responses

  1. Great article! Chernobyl does seem 1. a little soon and 2. shockingly insensitive but on the other hand a horror film like this is probably so silly and removed from reality that it probably won’t cause too much offense.

    The examples of people in true stories who are portrayed as villains doesn’t come much worse than in United 92, the (I think) German passenger who even has the name of a real passenger who starts trying to warn the terrorists that the passengers are about to fight back. As far as I’m aware there is no evidence this guy did this. Great film but shocking fudging of the facts!

    • Yep, I think 2.) is really the big factor here. Though I am surprised nobody seemed to make a big deal of it. I would have figured it would be perfect fodder for a slow news day.

  2. I remember when Titanic was out there were family members of those who died, saying it made a great deal of money at the price of these victims. There was a fair bit of uproar, especially when it came to the portrayal of certain people/characters.

    Whenever the the subject matter of a film is focussed on a real event, whenever it happened in history, you will always get a sense of exploitation. It’s just a fact. The film is exploiting the event. But it’s just whether it’s done tastefully or not.

    • Fair point, Jaina. And I think Titanic did push the boat out a bit (ha!) by showing that suicide. I thought, given how the movie claimed to be accurate and named the person in question, that was shockingly poor judgment. It’s the kinda thing you’d tiptoe around even if you were 100% certain. And,. to be frank, that was nowhere near 100%.

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