Director: Brad Parker
Starring: Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Dimitri Diatchenko, Olivia Dudley, Devin Kelley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Jonathan Sadowski
Rating: 1 star (of five)
While Paranormal Activity felt like a new twist on horror thrillers, something that rose above the constraints of a small budget, Chernobyl Diaries is a by-the-numbers slasher from the same writer that does nothing noteworthy beyond squandering a good locale. Oren Peli, writer-director of Paranormal Activity, provides the story here, though not the screenplay. The end product (and boy does it feel like a shoddily made product, devoid of passion or art) is so devoid of likable characters or plot logic that you actively root for the clueless teens’ inevitable demise.
If you don’t like slasher horror, stay away. There is nothing at all for you here. If you enjoy the genre, films like this are exactly like masturbation: You’ve experienced a million times before, and you’re doing it this time not in the hope of something new, something magical, but just to satisfy exactly the same urge with exactly the same dog-eared lingerie catalog or half-remembered high-school crush that got you off two dozen times before. So, um, don’t bring a date, I guess.
Spoilers from here on.
The biggest sin of this film is wasting a great, great premise. Peli no doubt has seen the internet-posted travelogues of tourists who have snuck into the urban wasteland surrounding the Chernobyl reactor, and thought, “What a great site for a horror film.” But when your plot boils down to shambling zombie-mutants chase stranded, stupid teenagers in the dark, which you could set at any random cabin in the woods, you’ve wasted a magnificent opportunity to find a unique story with unique thrills.
(Bonus example of wasted potential: If your kids are accompanied by a tour guide who is a former Russian special forces officer, why would you kill that guy first, off-camera, before he has done anything remotely interesting?)
The second great sin of the film is the actual writing, the malfunctioning mechanics of the uninspired story. The real horror here is that this script got shot. The characters are both blandly unshaped and instantly unlikable, which is a hard combination to manage. This movie is surprisingly humorless, and yet, see this guy in the picture here, riding shotgun? Throughout the movie, no matter how awful the circumstances he’s in—when people he loves dearly have been snatched by radioactive C.H.U.D.s—he is always grinning. “I’m in a movie. This is so cool!” In a cast that is generally unimpressive, that guy certainly stood out.
The story is constructed as a very boring maze. Characters get stranded, scary things chase them, they die one by one. Nothing makes sense. No matter how many times the unseen predators snatch a cast member into the abyss, you can count on the survivors running for ten minutes, only to stumble on that fallen friend’s corpse or some tiny artifact that they find in the darkness. (Apparently the characters run in very, very tight circles.)
The film (with mostly bland direction from first-timer Brad Parker) never really shows us the lurching killers in the shadows, and doesn’t seem to know what they are. (If you get your thrills from gore, there’s very little of that here.) It’s strongly implied that they’re irradiated lunatics who have been living in the vast, empty city beside the reactor, and directly stated that they’re recently escaped “patients” of some kind. The surplus of writers on this thing may not have coordinated well as they handed off draft after hacked-out draft.
The one pleasure of this film is, only a month after Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon affectionately mocked the formula of this kind of empty exercise, to see how many bullet points the lackluster Chernobyl crew ticks off as they slouch toward a neglected shelf in the last remaining video rental shops.