All the marketing behind Chernobyl Diaries had led me to expect a laborious, found-footage-done-wrong slog of a movie. While I’ve liked some of the stuff Oren Peli has been associated with – chiefly Paranormal Activity 1 and Paranormal Activity 3 – I just couldn’t muster up much excitement for this project. It seemed like a cheap and easy way to drop a bunch of characters into a famous locale and attempt to let the audience’s previously conceived notions about the place do all of the heavy lifting.
And while though I can’t say it isn’t that – I can also say I didn’t expect it to be as brisk and eventful as it is. By no means a masterpiece, Chernobyl Diaries is actually a pretty fun ride. The film is a fairly standard issue update of The Hills Have Eyes and, if you’re okay with that, there’s no reason you won’t be able to give yourself over to its hokey charms.
The characters are, of course, the film’s main stumbling block. I can’t relate to anyone who would willingly visit Chernobyl. And I especially can’t relate to anyone who would encourage their none-too-bright tour guide (Dimitri Diatchenko’s Uri) to press on with any kind of exploration of the territory after being turned away by the local guards. The closest we really get to any kind of distinction in the group is that two of the characters are estranged brothers. One’s a douche who has moved to the Ukraine (Jonathan Sadowski’s Paul) and the other’s a decent guy (Jesse McCartney’s Chris) who just wants to propose to his girlfriend (Olivia Dudley). Throw Devin Kelly’s Amanda (who’s supposed to be smart but agrees to these radioactive shenanigans far too easily) and a couple of hippies into the mix and you have your victims. Nothing inventive, but perfectly appropriate fodder for what awaits.
Once they get inside Chernobyl they’re given an extended tour of the area that’s actually fairly engaging. Even if every frame isn’t dripping with menace, it’s at the very least an effective backdrop. I should probably mention that I’m incredibly OCD when it comes to radiation. I use the microwave as little as possible and take no consolation when the backscatter technicians at LAX tell me that I’m going to absorb less radiation from their machine than I will from a transatlantic flight. My only takeaway from that is, “I need to fly across the Atlantic less often”. So when the film introduces the geiger counter as an audible way of keeping track of how much trouble the characters are in, it’s playing to my soft spot a bit. With every click of the device, my sense of dread kept growing. If you don’t share this caveat, the efficacy of the environment might be diminished for you.
While we can’t relate to the willingness of the characters to even venture to this place – let alone stay for more than a single solitary second – there’s something oddly captivating about taking a look at a community whose life was interrupted so suddenly and with such finality. After a few scares (one of which will really bear down on you) the group arrives back at their tour van to find that it no longer works. And it’s here that Chernobyl Diaries hits its stride.
Night falls and the film isn’t afraid to start killing off its characters. Rather quickly I might add (and in a manner that features several gruesome aftermaths). What you thought might be a slow stalk and slash turns into a protracted onslaught with a galloping pace. Things just keep going downhill for these poor saps. It’s here that an abandoned arena makes a surprisingly stark impression in a film that is otherwise more or less visually flat. Thereafter we’re subjected to a fair amount of effective scares via our dwindling protagonists. While the decision-making capabilities of the characters never surprise us, at least they don’t suffer in comparison to visit Chernobyl in the first place. They’re operating on something of an upward curve here, which helps keep us invested in the film’s 3rd-act set piece.
The film stumbles at the end with a rote conclusion that is simultaneously under explained and stripped of nuance. But, oddly enough, I didn’t feel cheated because the film itself is pretty much upfront about what it is at all times. Is Chernobyl Diaries a great movie? No. Is it a new horror classic? No. But, in all honesty, I can’t say I didn’t have a good time, because I did. And I can’t say I didn’t jump, because I did that too. As a horror fan – if you’re looking for a reasonably well executed take on a set of tropes that you love, you could easily do worse.