Chernobyl Diaries, opening today in theaters everywhere, isn’t a “found footage” film – even though the mastermind behind the story, Oren Peli, is known for that wildly popular narrative device (from Paranormal Activity to the television series The River).
There is an element of found footage to be had (someone actually finds footage), but Chernobyl Diaries is a rather straight-forward story. It’s just not a particularly fresh one. What the film has going for it is its unique, haunting backdrop, however, “environment” can only carry you so far.
Two brothers, and their respective girlfriends, kick their European vacation up a few notches with an “extreme” tour of Prypiat, a ghost town that once housed employees of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor…until disaster struck in 1986. Led by their guide, this group – accompanied by two tag-along backpackers – journey into town in a ramshackle van. Upon arrival, the sight of a desolate Prypiat is certainly an eerie one. A rusted Ferris Wheel looms over decayed buildings. Mutated fish life swim in a contaminated lake. And just beyond – the Chernobyl reactor itself, where no one can venture or they run the risk of radioactive poisoning, without or without protection.
All of this lends enough fodder for a solid, engaging set-up and there’s an amiable dynamic to the group. Their personal relationships are effectively laid out and, naturally, there’s a very specific detail about one couple to make us empathize them more than the others (thankfully, it’s not the tired “pregnancy” angle, yet it’s something dangerously in the same vein). And Uri, the tour guide, brings to the table the right balance of humor mixed with potential menace.
It’s only when night falls does Chernobyl Diaries tumble into a certain formula we’ve seen many, many times before. You could almost call the film “Chernobyl Has Eyes” as the story finds its characters being preyed upon by unseen beings. Ah, but are they a supernatural or tangible threat?
Director Brad Parker wisely chooses to keep this menace mostly in the dark (there is one terrific “Dear God, what IS THAT THING?” gag), but some of the best jump scares and moments of dread arrive before the main attacks on the group begin. In one terrific merging of choice production design and cinematography, we’re introduced to an abandoned car lot where a bus riddled with bullet holes offers our group a potential safe haven – or does it? As the film carries on, we begin to get ahead of the story, rightly guessing its turns until a needlessly ambiguous finale crashes down on us.
Chernobyl Diaries is by no means a bad film – it’s competently made, but mediocre in comparison to movies of this ilk that have come before it.
Rating: 6 out of 10