Hey, who wouldn’t go visit a radiation-contaminated ghost town, as the kids do in Chernobyl Diaries, a movie whose screenplay is written by Oren Peli of Paranormal Activity fame?
Do not, however, let that screenplay credit get your hopes up.
Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and her friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) are doing the big Europe trip — England, France, Italy, Prague, etc. They head to Kiev, where Chris’ brother Paul (Jonathan Sandowski) lives, and plan to go on to Moscow from there. But, hark, Paul has an excellent idea! Why not spend a day hanging around Pripyat, a town abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster? Sure, it’s contaminated with radiation, but it’s all cool and crumbly. And, hey, Amanda, you can take some swell photos.
This is, of course, a terrible idea. If one wanted photos of empty dilapidated buildings and children’s toys moldering in a yard, why not check out Detroit? Southwest flies there and you don’t need a Geiger counter. But the kids decide that ruination isn’t fun unless the area is generally off limits and radioactive. So they head to Pripyat with tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), a former military man leading these extreme tours, and backpacking couple Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), because in situations like this it’s good to have other people around to die horribly before you do.
Right away, the universe offers several reasons why this trip is ill-conceived — I mean, reasons in addition to the fact that it is a visit to a town with a view of the Chernobyl reactors. The road into the town is blocked due to “maintenance,” according to the military guards. But Uri knows a back way in. Once inside the zone, they stop by a lake, where a swarm of deformed, ravenous fish hungrily attacks a piece of beef jerky Uri throws in the water.
The menace becomes more spoiler alerty as the day in town wears on and the sun starts to set. Nature — bears, wolves, etc. — has taken hold in the empty town, but nature probably didn’t set the camp fire, the remains of which Uri sees in a building but hides from the others. But hey, I’m sure they’ll be able to drive that van right out of town, no problems, just like how they came in.
In Hostel, idiot American college students are way too trusting of the locals and pay for it by being killed in elaborate and gruesome ways. Here, the “let’s sneak past the checkpoint into the radioactive town” set-up makes the characters too dumb to identify with or care much about. What makes the Paranormal Activity movies fun suspenseful horror horror movies is the ordinariness of the people — living in very suburban homes, filming their goofy lives with shaky home cameras — and the small (at first) ways that the supernatural manifests in their lives. In Chernobyl Diaries, the movie starts with the characters making a decision that, best case, lands only one of them in a cancer ward years later. Then, every subsequent decision — let’s go in the back way, let’s go check out that noise, what’s down here in this dark place — just feels comically stupider. There is no suspense to it, no moments where the solution to the mystery could be this strange thing or this other strange thing or something else entirely. Nope, though I won’t spoil it here, the visitors are at odds with exactly what you think they are at odds with and exactly what you’d expect to happen happens.
The movie also wastes its setting — somehow this rare nuclear wasteland is no more creepy than your standard house in the boonies in which idiot college students are killed one by one. Only at the very end does radiation only play a role, and by then it feels like an afterthought. With characters differentiated only in how they meet their doom, and dialogue that feels like rewarmed leftovers from other horror films, Chernoybl Diaries isn’t even entertaining enough to be called a disaster. D+
Rated R for violence, some bloody images and pervasive language. Directed by Bradley Parker with a screenplay by Oren Peli, Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke, Chernobyl Diaries is an hour and 28 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Bros.