Six tourists and their Ukrainian guide take a trip to Pripyat, the city that was home to the Chernobyl power plant workers and their families. Unforeseen circumstances force them to spend the night in what was once the town square, and the things that now haunt the remains of the city emerge from the shadows.
Chernobyl Diaries was masterminded by Oren Peli, writer-director of Paranormal. He co-wrote and produced, turning directing duties over to visual effects artist Brad Parker (whose style suggests he kept forgetting he wasnít making a found-footage flick). Paranormal gave birth to a franchise that shows no signs of stopping, but given the way both critics and audiences reacted to this movie, itís a sure bet no one will be asking Peli to hatch an idea for a Three Mile Island- or Fukushima Daiichi-centric follow-up, so heíll just have to find other ways to occupy himself while waiting for Paramount to finally release Area 51. Simply put, this is a lousy movie, shamelessly derivative, insultingly stupid, and stupefyingly dull.
Like so many modern horror movies, Chernobyl Diaries exists for no other reason than to separate gullible teenagers from their money. (I have it on good authority that it served its purpose.) And all it takes for a movie like this to turn a profit is a solid opening weekend, as this sort of thing can be made on the cheap and doesnít require any sort of elaborate or expensive marketing push. Enough butts in the seats Friday through Sunday means a lot of happy execs and accountants on Monday. Whether or not the movie is actually any good is beside the point.
Which explains why Chernobyl Diaries is awful. This movie was cheap enough to make unfavorable word of mouth and a steep drop in grosses after its first three days of release meaningless. It has enough ostensibly scary images to fill a trailer, but not enough to fill a movie. Even worse, it has no genuinely scary moments or images. Much of the action consists of nothing more than people running around darkened rooms, beams from their flashlights bouncing off walls. Seriously, thatís half the damn movie. All of this is occasionally punctuated by attacks by barely glimpsed creatures, attacks that look an awful lot like similar moments from countless other movies. Not exactly anything to get excited about.
Itís virtually impossible to watch this movie and not think Peli concocted the plot after back-to-back viewings of The Blair Witch Project and The Hills Have Eyes (either version). It steals from several sources, but those are the two primary influences. But it never generates the heat Blair Witch does (and Iím only talking about the last ten minutes of Blair Witch, not all of that tedious nonsense that comes before), and its not mounted with anything approaching the craft of The Hills Have Eyes (either version).
But even had it been less cavalier in its thievery or constructed with any sort of skill, I doubt I would have found much to enjoy. Like the characters in an old Friday the 13th flick, the characters in Chernobyl Diaries are simply fodder for the things lurking in the shadows. And seeing as how thatís the primary reason Iíve never seen more than ten minutes of any Friday the 13th flick (which have always struck me as nothing more than extended show reels for the people creating the makeup and gore effects), itís unlikely I would have somehow glommed to a movie that adheres to the same basic template.
This movie takes an inordinate amount of time getting to the kills (which are surprisingly tame--theyíre cloaked in shadows and over in the blink of an eye; given that this is just a ďdead teenagerĒ movie, thatís a counterproductive move), but it spends none of the buildup doing anything with it characters; they remain faceless, interchangeable, and devoid of personality throughout, so bland that you canít even identify them by means of death. In essence, the entire first half of the movie is nothing more than padding. (The only person in the movie who creates anything resembling a memorable presence is Olivia Taylor Dudley, and thatís only because she keeps her chest thrust into the camera. Iím not necessarily complaining, mind you, but that sort of acting is better suited to a different genre.)
So what does the movie actually do during all that time itís not dong anything with the characters? Not much. The characters walk around, take pictures, and walk around. They also keep bringing up the fact that theyíre visiting the site of one of historyís worst nuclear disasters. Thereís talk of radiation poisoning, the lack of wildlife, and how long they can be exposed to the lingering radiation without facing consequences. This last is important, because weíre constantly informed that the characters will be in and out in a couple hours, which means theyíll be safe. Any longer, though, and bad things will start to happen.
So why does the movie forget all of this once the characters are forced to spend the night at the site and afterwards run all over the place? A mix of stupidity on the part of the writers and contempt for the audience, most likely. This movieís primary location is a site some scientists believe wonít be safe for human habitation for another 20,000 years (which means the characters are too stupid to care and get what they deserve, but never mind), but the characters spend the better part of a day exposed to radiation without any ill effects.
In fact, the only characters who do suffer ill effects from the radiation do so only after wandering into the damaged reactor, and the effects are both negligible and illogical. (This movieís working knowledge of nuclear material rivals in stupidity that scene in the George Pal/Byron Haskin version of War of the Worlds where the military nukes the aliens and the soldiers and scientists casually stand up and brush the radioactive debris off their clothes.)
The ending provides an explanation for whatís going on, but itís just as dumb as everything that precedes it. Itís meant to be surprising and clever, I suppose, but itís actually lazy, perfunctory, and half-assed. It also raises a lot of questions, albeit ones not worth pondering. Also not worth pondering is whether or not the movie is worthy of scorn and derision for exploiting real-life tragedy in the name of a fast buck. It is, but seeing as how itís also worthless, thereís no need to waste time or energy getting worked up about it.
Chernobyl Diaries reportedly cost only a million dollars to produce, and it was shot on digital video. This discís 1.85:1/1080p transfer--encoded with AVC onto a 25GB disc--reflects both of those qualities, but it nevertheless offers a good presentation. Colors are largely cold and desaturated, and the movie has a slightly soft look; thereís nothing in the way of visual pop, but the image is still smooth and relatively detailed, and it never looks too digital or unnatural. Blacks are stronger than you normally find in a movie with this sort of pedigree.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is slightly underwhelming. Thereís almost nothing channeled to the back half of the soundstage; you do get a tiny bit of atmosphere, as well as a couple of shock noises, but thatís it. This is a horror movie that takes place in a deserted, claustrophobic setting, so why would you not take advantage of that and create an unsettling sense of space and enveloping dread? The stuff that actually went into the mix doesnít sound bad; dialogue comes through clearly, the by-the-numbers score gets a good presentation, and the effects have a decent presence. The few instances of low-end action also sound good.
French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are also included; English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are available.
All of the following are presented in high-def:
An alternate ending (2 minutes) somehow proves to be even more of a lame, anticlimactic letdown than what made the final cut.
A single deleted scene (less than 1 minute) adds nothing.
Chernobyl Conspiracy (2 minutes) is a viral video. It purports to expose the conspiracy behind the disaster and cover-up at Chernobyl, but itís really just a random edit of non-Chernobyl clips and photos.
Uriís Extreme Tours infomercial (1 minute) is a fake commercial for the ďextreme tourĒ the characters undertake.
Some copies will also include a DVD copy and a code to access an UltraViolet digital copy.
Not even undiscriminating or terminally desperate horror fans will find anything to enjoy here.