Chernobyl has become a place of morbid fascination for everyone with tastes that are inclined towards nuclear fallout, ghost towns and radiation-induced deformities. It’s little wonder that tours to the town of Pripyat are a thriving business in Ukraine, and that there are countless pictures of the place taken by extreme tourists all over the internet.
Hang on, what I’ve just said kind of undermines the premise of Chernobyl Diaries; a film that plays on the mystery surrounding Pripyat, the town that was deserted as a result of the local nuclear reactor blowing up and spreading radioactive dust across half the continent. But let’s just say that we’re in an alternative reality, and that Pripyat is a strictly cordoned-off area that still contains high levels of radiation, and that the military was keeping watch over the area for mysterious reasons. This would make a pretty good foundation for a horror film, don’t you think?
And that’s exactly what we have here. A group of care-free American tourists travelling around Europe decide to go on an ‘extreme tourism’ trip led by Ukrainian ex-special forces meat-head Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko). After the group get turned away from the main entrance to the radioactive zone, they manage to find a back-route in. After an enjoyable day of wandering around the deserted town, they find that their car won’t start because ‘something chewed on the wires’, and so must find their way out of Pripyat by foot.
Up until the point where the car breaks down, The Chernobyl Diaries does a good job of building up suspense. The ghost town is creepy, first-time director Brad Parker rotates the camera around the characters deliriously and for a long time the first rule of horror is stuck to; keep whatever’s threatening our hapless heroes a mystery for as long as you can.
The problem is that one of the first lines that gets uttered in the film – ‘my friends are such morons’ – quickly becomes apparent. Chris is a baby-faced douche whose squidgy, one-dimensional relationship with his girlfriend Zoe is stomach-turning, while his brother Paul is a misogynistic dickhead whose ultimate aim is to poke the admittedly pretty Amanda. The only likeable characters in the film are secondary; Uri’s comically Eastern European accent is supported by some good lines, and Australian backpacker Michael seems to be the only character who has any ideas about how to get the group out of the predicament they’re in.
But so what if we don’t like the characters? All the more fun to watch them get slaughtered. Yet the way in which this happens is ultimately disappointing too, with the death of choice always being someone getting dragged off into the distance then found dead somewhere. Furthermore more, we’re supposed to be in a nuclear fallout zone, and the most imaginative stuff they can throw at the group is mutant fish, stray dogs, and a bear. A ***king useless CGI bear! Yes, there are the obligatory mutant-folk who remain barely visible for most of the film, but the Chernobyl license really wasn’t taken full advantage of here.
After the initial realisation of ‘we’re fucked because some creature nibbled the wires in our car for no known reason,’ should have been when the film picked up the chills. Yet these are restricted to fleeting moments. The scene in the kitchen where the group go to find Uri is classic horror stuff, as is the well-depicted sense that they’re being followed. But, before long, the film deteriorates from an eerie stalking scenario to a mindless chase.
I say ‘mindless’ because for some reason our moronic protagonists decide to run straight to the blown-up nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, whereas even without a map your aim would surely be to move in the opposite direction from it. This is just one of many baffling inexplicable moments in the film, like who is the little girl the back of whose head we see just once in the whole film? And why, for the love of God, is there a bear moping around the upper floors of an old tenement block in Pripyat?
So many loose ends, useless characters and the failure to take advantage of an inherently creepy locale make this one to avoid. Just another mock-found-footage failure of a horror to add to the worryingly large pile of similar such films.