In Chernobyl Diaries, a gaggle of Americans, Russians, Norwegians and Australians becomes an international buffet for mutated survivors of the Chernobyl disaster. Consider it a coalition of the killing in this Eastern European spin on The Hills Have Eyes.
The film’s mastermind is Oren Peli, who created Paranormal Activity and here produces while sharing a screenwriting credit. Its title suggests a first-person POV that isn’t there. As is, the film seems so named to avoid the title Chernobyl and feel somewhat less exploitative of the thousands affected by real nuclear fallout. You get the sleazy fatalism you pay for, albeit with production values and scare tactics more atmospheric, restrained and artistic than you might expect.
Forget vaguely recognizable, easily slaughtered faces like the henchman from Live Free or Die Hard, the Snakes on a Plane guy who now resembles Peggy from the Discover Card ads, and Jesse McCartney, an actor / singer who looks like he made a Frankie Muniz face which stayed that way.
The real stars are location manager Tamara Pesic, production designer Aleksandar Denic, cinematographer Morten Søborg and visual effects supervisor Mark O. Forker. Collectively, they take us into Serbia and Hungary’s helliest holes and persuade us we’re watching lambs being led to slaughter in the real Pripyat.
Pripyat is the Russian city adjacent to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The plant’s workers and their families called this city home until the 1986 release of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere caused a citywide evacuation.
It’s also the “extreme” tourist destination of six people who should have known better. There’s boyish Christopher (McCartney) and his ne’er-do-well older brother, Paul. Christopher’s girlfriend, Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and her bestie, Amanda (Devin Kelley), tag along. And the Aussie-Norwegian couple of Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Borso Børdal) jump in at the last minute.
Their guide is Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), a former soldier and wannabe travel agent. He assures them radiation levels are low enough to safely spend a few hours walking around, which they do … before returning to a sabotaged van.
Now, it’s daytime when this happens. We know A) they’re 12 miles from a checkpoint; and B) Uri has a loaded gun. A stout soldier should be able to lead them off the premises at a 4-mile-an-hour clip and get them back there in three hours.
I know, I know. Way more logical to sit in a van until the sun goes down, the windows fog up and the battery dies. As the group delves deeper into Pripyat’s depths to dodge death, it suggests The Descent. At best, Diaries is just decent.
And that’s no thanks to the seven bleating lunkheads running through this labyrinth or a script that spirals into a ludicrous conclusion. It’s all in the look of the subterranean set design and seamless special effects that serve up antechambers of doom. And the movie’s sly about keeping its sludgy killers mostly in the shadows. If you’ve seen one wrinkly, hairless malformed mutant …
It’s worth noting Peli’s writing collaborators are Shane and Carey van Dyke. Not because they’re Dick’s grandsons, but because they’re writing inmates at The Asylum — a studio known for thinly veiled, straight-to-DVD blockbuster knockoffs as Transmorphers, The Day the Earth Stopped and Paranormal Entity.
Yes, that last one is The Asylum’s imitation-vanilla version of Paranormal Activity. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, well, Peli must really relish the attention. By throwing in his lot with these hacks, Chernobyl Diaries gets stuck somewhere between a DVD with a crappy Photoshopped cover and a legitimate horror movie.