Title: Chernobyl Diaries
Directed By: Bradley Parker
Starring: Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Jesse McCartney, Olivia Dudley, Nathan Phillips, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Dimitri Diatchenko
Thanks to the Paranormal Activity franchise and Insidious, with Oren Peli’s name, comes high expectations. Bumps in the night, innovative concepts, fun scares and perhaps more importantly than anything, situations that feel real are all elements that are now expected from a Peli film and while each and every one is present and accounted for in Chernobyl Diaries, they’re all achieved on a subpar level.
While on an overseas trip, Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley) and their friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) make a pit stop in Russia to visit Chris’ brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). They enjoy a night out on the town and the next day, their itinerary has them hitting Moscow. However, Paul makes a new friend, Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), and convinces the group to take Uri’s extreme tourism trip to Pripyat, the city which once housed the Chernobyl nuclear reactor employees and their families. At first they’re all thrilled, as the abandoned city is certainly a site to behold, but when they’re ready to leave and their van won’t start, they come to realize they’re not alone.
Inklings of Chernobyl Diaries‘ simple and clever premise are present throughout the film, but are rarely expanded upon. Rather than have each scene lead to a new discovery or propel the narrative forward, the characters merely run in circles. We get a lot of dog chase sequences and quite a few instances where they wrestle with whether or not to go back for a missing group member, and all the while you never get the sense that the group is making any progress. They may get a gun and find a friend, but ultimately, that trapped and helpless sensation never dissipates in the least, bathing the feature in too much dread.
However, the narrative is somewhat redeemed thanks to good performances and notable character development. Not only do all the travelers feel like real people, but they share honest connections with one another. When someone’s dragged away into the darkness, if their backstory and personality aren’t enough to bring on the grief, the emotion from the loved one they leave behind will be.
As far as the camerawork goes, it’s important to note that Chernobyl Diaries is not a found footage film as the title and the film’s promotional campaign implies. The film does open up with a tacky, but cute montage of Chris, Natalie and Amanda’s pre-Paul trip footage, but then it ditches the handycam for a somewhat more traditional shooting style. First time feature director Bradley Parker still gives it that shaky cam sensation by using a handheld shooting style and covering the action simply by following the actors rather than cutting to standard wide, medium and close-up shots. While the format works for the most part, when Parker cuts to a standard shot, perhaps something static, from a longer and more mobile take, it can be a bit jarring. But still, Parker knows what he’s doing when it comes to designing his images. Careful attention isn’t paid to each and every shot, but there are quite a few spots that show off eerily beautiful sets, intriguing silhouettes, clever blocking and more.
It’s doubtful that very many are heading into Chernobyl Diaries expecting a life changing, or genre changing experience, so the result is suitable. We’ve got a group of likable characters, an engaging scenario and a ton of cheap, but fun scares. In the end, the fact that a number of major questions go unanswered makes it tough to look back on the film as a sensible and worthwhile experience, but the most disappointing thing about Chernobyl Diaries is that it’s a missed opportunity. While the core concept had the potential to deliver a clever and original horror film, all we got was the obligatory cheap scare.