Chernobyl Diaries (2012) Review

Chernobyl Diaries Poster

Chernobyl Diaries was directed by Bradley Parker (The Devil Below), written by Oren Peli (Area 51, Paranormal Activity), and Shane and Carey Van Dyke (Titanic II, Don’t Worry Darling), and stars Jonathan Sadowski (Friday the 13th, Spring Breakdown), Devin Kelly (9-1-1, Anchors), Jesse McCartney (Young Justice, Keith), Olivia Taylor Dudley (The Magicians, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension), Nathan Phillips (Redline, Blood Vessel), Ingrid Bolsø Berdal(Stardust, Blasted), and Dimitri Diatchenko (Metro: Last Light, Company of Heroes). It’s about a group of tourists venturing into the irradiated city of Pripyat long after the Chernobyl meltdown, only for them to find that nature has done more than just “reclaim” its surroundings.

The Plot: Anyone who knows their environmental or even geopolitical history will know the story of Chernobyl, and it would’ve made for quite the tale if the writers of Chernobyl Diaries knew how to truly take advantage of the history and bring it into the present, but they don’t – so it doesn’t.

Finally arriving in Kyiv after taking a trip across Europe, couple Chris (McCartney) and Natalie (Dudley), along with friend Amanda (Kelly) meet with Chris’s brother Paul (Sadowski) to go to Moscow as the last stop on their trip before making the return journey. Instead of that, Paul suggests going to Pripyat to see the vacant apartments and the physical representation of sadness and failure. It’s hard to believe that someone on their only trip to Europe would want to take this detour, especially when Chris has ulterior motives for the journey that don’t add up with the destination.

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Getting there requires that the group go with Uri (Diatchenko), a local guide who knows the ins and outs of the city. They, along with backpackers Michael (Phillips) and Zoe (Berdal) make their way inside and eventually get trapped within, as Uri’s van is sabotaged and the vacationers are left without a clear route. Peli and the Van Dykes don’t make a story from the setup, only offering lame exposition as breakups for a cacophony of random babble until the inevitable second and third acts play out to the silly conclusion. If you’re looking for story, watch the HBO miniseries.

The Characters: Because Chernobyl Diaries comes from the mind of Peli, who got his start with another uncharacterized feature – Paranormal Activity – the task of creating characters fell upon the Van Dykes, who all but completely dropped the ball here.

Parker attempts to introduce Chris and Natalie with a montage of travelogue footage of the couple in various European countries, but nothing sticks since there’s next to no dialogue throughout its appearance. Aside from Chris wanting to propose to his girlfriend in Moscow, there’s no development for either of them anyway. Amanda is also present in this opening, but she doesn’t fare any differently here or later in the picture, only ever used as a source of temptation for Paul.

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Paul moved to Ukraine a while back and didn’t tell anyone, forcing Chris’s hand in finding him. He explains that he got a taste of the lifestyle (though the audience doesn’t receive the slightest idea of what he means) and took to an apartment where his carnal desires can play out. Entirely unlikeable throughout the runtime, Chernobyl Diaries makes him the main character so we can watch as he almost spoils his brother’s proposal and ogles Amanda. Stand-up kinda guy.

Uri is the only character that’s even remotely memorable. Since he’s served his time in the country’s special forces, he has a reverence for the disaster that the tourists don’t. He makes his money by reminding people of what happened, and it’s only because of Diatchenko’s acting that it seems to be a source of trauma for the man, who is very personable when the attention is on him. It’s a shame that he wasn’t the main character, since he’s the only one who matters, and is played by the only actor giving a good performance.

The Horror: Although the movie is set in a location where one of the worst disasters in history had occurred, Chernobyl Diaries is almost defiantly un-scary. Unsettling stories are passed around and have some impact, but everything by the trio that was written for the movie falls entirely flat.

For the first half hour, the only two artificial scares are immensely goofy. Uri brings the company to a lake whose radiation content has made a fish mutate to the point where its eyes are bugging out and its teeth have extended into something close to canines. This doesn’t transfer over to Chernobyl Diaries’ second scare, which is just a lazy jumpscare of a normal bear running down a hallway. Because Uri knows the real terror of the setting, his stories of 50,000 people having to leave behind their lives and belongings – oftentimes to the same painful result – are the only horrifying parts of the first act; and they do resonate.

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What kicks things off (I use that phrase lightly) is a group of (irradiated?) dogs razing Uri’s van and mauling Chris, forcing the other characters to look for help. However, this wouldn’t have even been necessary if they just listened to Uri. And because Parker doesn’t show the antagonists of the movie at this point, the audience has no choice but to focus on the stupidity in play amongst the principal cast, who meander around for the entirety of the second act.

Chernobyl Diaries doesn’t know what kind of horror it wants to be; there are mutated animals, regular animals, tales of real mishaps, random apparitions, a conspiracy, and the eventual reveal of something that can only be described as creatures from “The Hills have Vodka”. One chase sequence towards the end is moderately effective but it’s not worth sitting through so much filler for.

The Technics: Releasing in 2012, one year after the peak of the found footage craze and being co-written and produced by one of the people who resurrected the style didn’t help the odds for Chernobyl Diaries, which was already on the ropes thanks to an untested helmer and weak co-writers.

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Morten Søborg (Serena, Bleeder) and director Bradley Parker didn’t commit to one filming style, allowing the movie to fluctuate between documentary-esque handheld camerawork and erratic, unintelligible shaky cam whenever they felt like switching it up. The documentary style works well for the setting, and there are some stirring visuals, but the way the filmmakers turn on a dime to save pennies doesn’t sit well – again due to the setting’s innate tragedy.

The sound design is alright though. Most sequences are signposted in regard to whether or not a scare is about to happen, but the director knows when and how to slowly drown out the ambient noise to create a competent setup, even if he fumbles the execution. While production design was obviously a lesser priority given the location shooting, there are some sets that had to be produced for Chernobyl Diaries such as the reactor control centers, and thanks to pictorial references, the movie is able to at least maintain its authentic look and feel. Faint praise given its silly scares, but credit where it’s due.

Chernobyl Diaries is never offensively awful, but it’s a bad movie and an immense disappointment in most regards. It’s rarely scary and clear that very little went into the characters, but it has authenticity and a solid performance from Diatchenko, who deserved more than he got, as did audience members.

Chernobyl Diaries is available on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital via Warner Bros.

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