The cleverest moments in Chernobyl Diaries come early: scenes of young American tourists enjoying the sites of London, France, and eventually Russia as seen through the digital camera recording them. But director Bradley Parker and scripter Oren Peli are just teasing us. This isn't, thankfully, a through-the-lens or found footage movie, although more professionally handled handheld cameras do follow the six Americans as they head to Prypiat, the ghost city near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant.
Their tour guide is Uri, a beefy entrepenuer with special forces training, offering "extreme" tours through the abandoned, desolate buildings and less radioactive areas of ground. The cleverness stops somewhere between their boarding of Uri's rundown van and a little after its breakdown as night approaches, leaving them stranded in Prypiat.
Given this real and eerie environment, suspense builds for us while concerns mount for Uri and the six adventurers. Their this-is-cool mood, filled with playful banter and a few false-start scares that leave them acting giddy, filled with the sense of doing something special and naughty--like American youth traveling abroad, in horror movies anyway, are supposed to act--changes to recriminations, fears, and blame-gaming. The change is on a dime, so it surprises me; where do all these pent-up feelings come from? Not from the script: it doesn't pinch harder than necessary to line up the usual suspects for this phase of the movie, shifting everyone into last-one-standing mode.
Uri pulls a handy gun from the glove compartment as stray sounds and vicious, starving, dogs frazzle nerves. I would have put my money on Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) to bring this story up a few notches. He looks tough, acts tough, and is built like a brick wall. Perhaps it was too much to expect that the story would break out of the mold for parts unknown, but Uri, the biggest and baddest of the group is still written out early, leaving six bickering, frightened, American numbnuts to go find him or, at least, his gun while they figure out what to do next.
It's the figuring part that wears this movie like yesterday's fashion (which admittedly, for the majority of the horror movie industry, is worn everyday); shaky-blur "found footage" of an attack on the van; darkened interiors punctuated by flashlights to disorient us and tease at possible terrors lurking outside the light; phantom assailants we never see clearly, and a lot of screaming, shouting, and running away from them, leading deeper into ever tighter passageways, a maze of claustrophic, bunker-like rooms, and the Chernobyl Power Plant, still hot with radiactivity. If you've ever screamed through a haunt attraction with your friends (or a bunch of strangers), the overall effect is similar to watching Chris (Jesse McCartney), Michael (Nathan Phillips), Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), Zoe (Ingrid Berdol), Amanda (Devin Kelley), and Natalie (Olivia Dudley) be terrorized, although more usually happens in the haunt attraction.
Chernobyl Diaries is well acted, atmospheric, loaded with promise, but leaves a bland taste. Some people will find some scares (or recognize them from the trailer), but seasoned horror fans will find a well-worn roadmap to boredom with too few interesting stops along the way.