Chernobyl may be an unconventional, off-the-beaten path tourist destination, but it inspired an extremely conventional, straight-out-of-the-playbook horror film.
Though it may never be clear what “diaries” are being referenced in Chernobyl Diaries, since this is one of the few recent horror movies that isn’t based on “found footage”, the film follows a trio of Americans—Chris (sometimes-pop-star Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley), and their newly single friend Amanda (Devin Kelley)—on a trip to see Chris’s brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) in Kiev as part of a cross-continental adventure.
Paul is quickly established to be the reckless, spontaneous older brother, and soon he convinces the travelers to take an “extreme” tour of Chernobyl, site of a nuclear disaster 25 years earlier, and Pripyat, the city outside Chernobyl that housed the workers’ families and was abandoned overnight. (The filmmakers all but add an “…or was it?” to the description of Pripyat.) After little discussion, they pick up a pair of backpacking red shirts and an ex-special-forces tour guide named Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) and head off in a creaky van towards the reactors.
This setup is novel, as is the initial introduction of Pripyat, when Uri takes the group through scenes of empty carnival rides and burned-out apartment buildings. From there, though, it devolves into the type of horror movie where the tour guide disappears mysteriously into the night and the group splits up to follow a trail of his blood into dark subterranean passageways.
The characters, thin and stock to begin with, keep finding ways to be disappointing. Over and over, they find themselves in situations where they know they should run and find help from outside of Pripyat, but they keep getting distracted from this life-saving mission to rescue friends that have gone missing, to scream and cry about friends they find worse for the wear, or to investigate strange and scary noises coming from somewhere in the distance. Repeatedly, they muster up heroic courage to go charging—unarmed and unprepared—after a strange sound or vision, only to run away again when they discover that, yes, something unsavory was the cause.
Sure, they’re under fire from multiple threats. Before they realize that Pripyat might not be entirely abandoned, they find themselves on guard against hungry wild animals (mostly ravenous dogs but once, hilariously, a wayward bear) and the contamination that still exists in pockets in the site. (The characters carry a Geiger counter to warn them against high levels of radiation.) However, these forces pop in and out of the story at will, and they’re never used to build a feeling of mounting suspense or dread.
By the time the real boogeymen of the movie are introduced, even the location has lost its luster. The characters are lured into underground tunnels, abandoned hallways, and darkened rooms—they really could be anywhere. This is one of the few horror movies where the atmosphere is spookier and more interesting during the daytime, before any of the haunts have come into play. There’s even a bonus feature, “Chernobyl Conspiracy Viral Video” (although is it really a viral video if it never goes anywhere?), that uses old photos to explain the history of Chernobyl that has a lot more style to it than the actual movie. (The other features—a deleted scene, an alternate ending, and a short commercial for Uri’s tourism service—are fun but forgettable.)
Chernobyl Diaries also holds back a great deal when it comes time to reveal the forces that have been menacing the main characters. They only offer a few, quick glimpses of them. This is not The Hills Have Eyes, where the horrors and the landscape and history that caused them are inextricably linked to the point where both feel like another horrific planet. It’s possible to create big scares out of the kind of restraint that the Chernobyl Diaries was aiming for, but without delving into the psychologies of fully realized characters or a distinct “haunted house” of sorts, there isn’t much in the Chernobyl Diaries for anyone to latch onto.
It’s odd that the movie would fall to such generalness, since Chernobyl Diaries comes from producer/writer Oren Peli, director of Paranormal Activity. Paranormal Activity is almost the opposite o f Chernobyl Diaries; that movie takes the most generic location possible, a suburban house, and wrings it for the maximum amount of tension it can create. Instead, in the hands of first-time director Bradley Parker, usually a visual effects guy, the Chernobyl Diaries takes a setting full of inherent creepiness and makes the event so predictable that it loses all of its power to frighten. Like the real Chernobyl, there’s just nothing there.