Off on a European vacation with pal Amanda (Devin Kelley) and girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), Chris (Jesse McCartney) has made plans to stop off in the Ukraine to visit his estranged brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). Hoping to make a heroic impression on his sibling, Paul has arranged time with “Extreme Tourism” expert Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), with plans to visit Prypiat, the city near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, and explore the remains of the deserted, radioactive community. Joined by travelers Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), the gang heads off into the unknown, anxious to see the contaminated area. Planning to spend only a few hours inside a restricted neighborhood, the visit becomes permanent when the group loses their ride to safety and Chris is mortally wounded. Facing the darkness alone, the frightened tourists soon realize the abandoned apartments and factories aren’t actually abandoned, but inhabited by cannibalistic mutants, ready to devour fresh meat.
“Chernobyl Diaries” emerges from the mind of Oren Peli, who co-scripts (with Carey Van Dyke and Shane Van Dyke) and produces, using a formula for scares that became law with the monster box office success of his 2009 feature, “Paranormal Activity.” Peli’s actual directorial follow-up, “Area 51,” has been gathering dust on a studio shelf for over two years now, but that’s another story. With “Chernobyl Diaries,” Peli hands creative control to Bradley Parker, a visual effects artist making his directorial debut, tasked with organizing a frightening tale of survival when most of the terror emerges from aural shocks and screams in the darkness. It’s not an inspiring launch to a celebrated moviemaking career, with Parker barely contributing an effort to inject creepiness into the proceedings, finding more pleasure focusing on the insipid banter shared by the visitors, most of it improvised, riddled with profanity to create “reality.” I can’t believe it took three people to write this thing.
While the picture wins points for abandoning the tired “found footage” format swallowing the genre these days, “Chernobyl Diaries” doesn’t do nearly enough with its dramatic angle. Most of the movie is devoted to dopey character interaction and the tentative inspection of areas near the power plant, finding a close encounter with a runaway bear the only real jolt in the first half of the film. There’s a barking mutant fish too, but I don’t have a clue how to even begin to describe that brief bit of absurdity. Instead of feeling encroaching dread, the audience is forced to endure untested actors indicating wildly to help them stand out in front of the camera, while batting around a little familial drama as Chris and Paul work out some brotherly trust issues as the day trip goes to hell. The script labors to establish a few emotional beats to help plug viewers into the mood of this bland group, but there’s really no point. I’d trade all the laborious interplay and formulaic backstories for one genuine scare.
Once night falls and the gang is left to die in the dark, Parker doesn’t crank up the intensity as expected, instead working tired haunted house tropes, following these individuals as they stumble around the unknown armed only with flashlights and the F-word. Chernobyl is a ripe setting for some seriously unsettling business, but Peli and the production do nothing with the bleak potential. The mutant uprising is a disastrous creative choice, turning the endeavor into a mean-spirited cartoon with no one to root for and nothing to care about. There are also a few puzzling gaps in logic as well, including the character of Paul, who speaks fluent Ukrainian throughout the film, yet pleads for his life in front of Chernobyl guards in English.
There’s no care involved in the creation of “Chernobyl Diaries,” which has been made solely to cash in on a horror craze. The picture is second-rate and ridiculous (especially the ending), and worst of all, it’s completely uneventful.