A well-made horror film can be one of the most enjoyable cinematic experiences a film buff can experience. If the film manages to hook you in the first act, drawing you into its web of a story, it can then ratchet up the tension, keeping you on the edge of your seat until a thrilling climax. Even lesser horror movies, which, let’s face it, is the category most studio horror films fall into these days, can pull off some of those tricks and treats. While “scary” probably isn’t the right word for it anymore, audiences still have a desire to feel something similar in the theater – a desire to be unsettled perhaps. Unfortunately, Bradley Parker‘s Chernobyl Diaries fails at all of this.
The plot of the film isn’t so much a plot as it as a horror movie formula. A group of six guys and gals in their twenties (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Jesse McCartney, Olivia Dudley, Devin Kelley, Nathan Phillips, and Jonathan Sadowski) decide to take a trip to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and to Pripyat, the nearby city where the workers of Chernobyl lived with their families. Since this isn’t a normal tourist destination, their guide is a local Ukrainian named Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), a big, strapping ex-military type. Yuri’s business is adventure tourism for those industrious souls who want to try to kill themselves while in Europe. Obviously Pripyat and Chernobyl are off-limits to tourists, and so the gate and the guards with the guns outside the city come as no surprise. Uri obviously knows them and has done this type of thing before, but despite their camaraderie, there’s something going on this time and they won’t let the group pass.
Prodded a little by the group, Uri takes them around to an unguarded side entrance and they’re in. The group spends the day walking through an empty city, taking pictures and enjoying themselves. But when it comes time to leave, the van won’t start and help can’t be hailed over the radio. The van’s breakdown is no typical malfunction. Critical wires and leads have been chewed through. By what or who is the supposedly ominous question.
Oh, Chernobly Diaries, how can you fail? Let me count the ways! We’ll begin with pacing. The theater was surprisingly full for the midnight show last night, simply proving that audiences do indeed still have that desire to feel scared or unsettled or whatever you want to call it. Horror films sell. And the trailer for Chernobyl Diaries left nothing ambiguous. It sold a horror movie. The point is, we all know bad stuff is going to happen. Making us wait around for it is a tenuous proposition at best. If you’re using that time well, to establish characters, to fill us in on crucial plot details, or to foreshadow future nastiness, then by all means, take your time. Those are all interesting things to watch and keeps the viewer actively engaged with your film. Watching six characters that we know little about wander around a big empty city for 15 minutes is not interesting. It’s nearly 40 minutes into the film’s 90-minute runtime until the van won’t start. And even then, the script (from Oren Peli, Carey Van Dyke, and Shane Van Dyke) and Parker’s direction slow burns the last 50 minutes of the film, filling it with scenes of the remaining characters walking around the city, looking for wires to fix the van and then looking for their friends.
It is a painfully boring film, something a horror film should never be.
Here’s the thing about horror films. You don’t actually have to care when each character dies. In fact, many times, there’s a certain amount of fun to be had from movies finding inventive ways to kill characters we couldn’t care less about. The Final Destination films have made a franchise out of this. The key is to have at least one character that we at least mildly care about and want to see survive the film. Chernobyl Diaries has no such character. In fact, if you were to pick at the beginning, you would most likely select either Uri or the ringleader Paul (Sadowski) as the most likeable character. Trouble is, Paul quickly establishes himself as an ass who calls people “bro” and is a complete dick for no reason. His character turns on a dime from being fun and easygoing at the beginning of the film to giant douchenozzle in the span of about 15 minutes. In any event, aside from Uri, and if you’ve seen many horror films you can make an educated guess about what happens to Uri and when, the film lacks that character that you want to survive. Instead, you just want them all to die, which can also be fun, except this film seems designed to piss you off and thus wants to kill its unlikeable characters off as slowly as humanly possible.
It would be remiss not to mention the filming choices. It basically feels like a found footage film where no one acknowledges the camera or the character holding it. The problem with this is two-fold. First, it limits the film to a distinctly home-made and non-cinematic look. And second, it introduces an abundance of hand-held. Of course, hand-held photography can be a legitimate cinematic choice that can enhance scenes. Unfortunately, it has been bastardized by found footage horror films into a cheap way to introduce confusion and suspense. The herky-jerky movement is chaotic and energetic, leading you to believe that you should feel some sense of tension, but if it’s overused and, more importantly, improperly used it simply ends up annoying. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that Chernobyl Diaries has just a few moments sprinkled throughout that actually do feel cinematic. But they are quickly replaced with oft-dreaded shaky-cam.
Ultimately, Chernobyl Diaries is a cheap attempt by Warner Bros. to cash in on Oren Peli’s name and get some of that Paranormal Activity money. In his defense, he does have a story by credit. On the other hand, there isn’t really a story to be taking any credit for here. It feels like he said, “hey, Chernobyl could be a creepy location, run my minions and make a film there!” The film is hollow and empty, feeling far longer than its 90 minutes, as you sit begging for it to just be over already.
The Upside: It has one cool shot and it’s the shot from the trailer where the group is approaching the little girl and suddenly their friend is pulled down a stairwell behind them. Non-coincidentally, it is also one of the few shots of the film that’s locked off and not handheld.
The Downside: Everything else.
On the Side: While it certainly fails on every level, it’s such a bland film that it didn’t raise my ire enough to hate it. It’s just bad. Thus, it gets a D from me and not a full on F.