No matter how much money you put into something, once in a while, you have to cut your losses and move on. That would’ve been sound advice for the characters in Chernobyl Diaries, where six vacationers buy an “extreme tour” for a day in Pripyat, the once proud city that used to house the families that worked at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant before the meltdown forced them to suddenly evacuate 25 years ago.
You’ve seen these tours and perhaps have been on them before; “Reputable” eco tours that are far less extreme than what the brochure says, but hey, global trekkers are up for anything as long as they’re away from home. There is no zip lining, kayaking or white water rafting in this trip. The fascination of this journey is to walk around a ghost town, take pictures and make sure you leave the city without being exposed to too much nuclear radiation. Pripyat is a wasteland now, empty and deserted, completely absent of life, except for the random rabid dog or wolf, but there’s no need to worry; they only come out at night. The tour guide ensures the tour will only last two hours long–a harbinger of bad things to come. The sketchy van is a dead give away, or is it that tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) works alone?
Unlike those 1986 victims, our protagonists have several chances to reconsider their trip and disregard the textbook warning when the checkpoint that usually allows Uri’s tours through, would not let them through that day. What would they do now? Money was already exchanged, time was spent in the two hour drive from Kiev. Ah, former strike force soldier Uri knows another way in. Thank goodness. No one likes losing a day’s worth of entertainment, especially when it’s already paid for.
For Chris (Jesse McCartney, Young Justice), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and their friend Amanda (Devin Kelley, Chicago Code), this was an extended leg of their European tour, checking off every major city from London to France, Prague and a stop at Kiev to meet up with Chris’ brother, Paul (Jonathan Sadowski, Live Free or Die Hard). They were supposed to go to Moscow but Paul convinced them to postpone and lose their “govno” on this tour. Two others join at the last minute–backpacking newlyweds from Australia (Ingrid Bolso Berdal and Nathan Phillips). The actual tour is amusing even in its desolation and unsettling silence. But when the tour concludes and darkness begins to fall is when the familiar script comes into play, the minute the van doesn’t start. There are arguments between brothers, Uri and his customers, constant panic and despair. Urban legends are suddenly shared and shallow characters are picked off one by one. Then there are idiotic separations, too little ammunition to defeat the ones kept in darkness, and too much unfamiliarity paralyzes our protagonists into one stupid move after another.
Chernobyl Diaries is the latest horror ride from writer, Oren Peli who brought us all of those Paranormal Activities and ABC’s short-lived series, The River. This is not a pure found-footage film (thankfully), but there is plenty of handheld camerawork to show off the elegant evolution of what we were introduced to in The Blair Witch Project. Director Bradley Parker creates excellent atmosphere, designing a good thrill of flickering flashlights, beaming around in endless catacombs and reactor buildings, while wisely obscuring the threat throughout the entire film. The one important thing Chernobyl Diaries did not do well, though, is preserve hope. Even the most terrifying film should contain a dim glimmer of hope to light the path for the adventurers. All of that seems to go right out the broken-down van when Uri steps out into the darkness.
People who live on a diet of cookie-cutter horror films might enjoy Chernobyl Diaries for what it is, because it’s the same script that keeps being bought and sold to the public. But for anyone else looking for more will be disappointed, including any actual survivors of Pripyat. Cabin in the Woods reminded us that most horror scripts, even ones written outside of Hollywood, don’t stray far from the tried and true. The word “Diaries” actually implies survival of some sort, but the odds are stacked so highly against this group that it quickly becomes watching the sand drop in an hourglass more than it does providing a clever cautionary tale.