Chernobyl Diaries

Chernobyl Diaries

**1/2

Reviewed by: David Graham

Working from a story idea by Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli, visual effects whiz Bradley Parker makes an efficient if inauspicious directorial debut with a horror thriller enlivened by spectacularly oppressive location work but hampered by faddish cliches tailored towards its tech-savvy teen target audience. With a surprisingly sufferable young cast and a pervasive atmosphere generated by the use of dilapidated Euro-slums, Chernobyl Diaries gets off to a promising start but is undone in the end by both the familiarity of its mutant menace and how little is done with them.

Travelling across Europe with his gorgeous girlfriend Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) and recently single pal Amanda (Devin Kelley), young American Chris (Jesse McCartney) stops off in Kyiv to visit his big brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski), who's landed on his feet in the Ukraine as a desirable foreign bachelor. Chris's plans to pop the question on a romantic trip to Moscow are put on hold when his headstrong sibling suggests the group take an 'extreme tourism' trip through the ghost town of Pripyat, where the families of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor lived until the 1986 accident left the place a toxic deathtrap. With dodgy but jovial local tour-guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) and an Aussie/Norwegian couple in tow, the group have a memorable day taking in the eerie aftermath of the disaster, only occasionally disturbed by the local wildlife. On returning to the van, they're horrified to discover the wires have been cut, leaving them stranded in an unforgiving environment that may not be as deserted as they thought.

Copy picture

An opening montage of travel footage sets up the diary concept nicely, with the goofy tourists staying just the right side of irritating and the found footage format thankfully only used for a prologue. The subsequent action does occasionally hinge unimaginatively on the use of mobile phones and cameras, but it's nowhere near as heavy-handed with these gimmicks as many recent chillers, aside from one flash-driven suspense sequence that's been done to death in the likes of Saw and [Rec] years ago.

Parker is blessed with the presence of talented Leonardo DiCaprio lookalike McCartney and Wolf Creek star Nathan Phillips, but Sadowski's boorish elder brother is intensely annoying - he's the sort of smart-ass dick you can't wait to see get his comeuppance, but perversely plays a much bigger part than you'd expect while his costars are largely wasted. The girls aren't given much to work with at all either: Olivia Dudley pouts around with her chest puffed out as far as possible, while Kelley is reduced to sensible sidekick, coming into her own too late in the game to be convincing as a resourceful heroine. Diatchenko deftly steals scenes and brings some authentic flavour as the opportunistic tour-guide, but he's also squandered in order to jump-start the peril.

The first half builds up the tension well, with several well-timed jolts and the handheld camerawork keeping the viewer on edge as it roves around the blasted landscape. However, as night falls and unknown creatures gather in the omnipresent shadows, the script falls back on too many obvious situations and the panicking characters start to behave in ways that may have you screaming in anger rather than terror. Not unlike Prometheus, the story's desperate structure has its protagonists running around like headless chickens away from certain doom one minute then headlong back towards it the next, with little of their reasoning making any sense.

The film is really let down though by its pitifully unoriginal monsters, who are given minimal screen time and even less explanation. While leaving the horrors to the viewer's imagination can often work in a fear-flick's favour, the barely-glimpsed baldie baddies here merely come off as cheap extras from The Hills Have Eyes. It's as if Parker is too ashamed of their make-up design to show us it; aside from a heart-stopping introduction to them which works like the kitchen scene in Jurassic Park but with the raptors kept unseen, these villains are far too vague to register as a credible rather than corny threat.

With only one low-budget film entirely of his own to his name, Peli should be careful lest his potential be undermined by his patronage of such underwhelming fare; by the time he gets back to the style he's popularised, he may well find his audience have moved on. Parker shows skill in wringing some suspense from overdone situations, and his evocative exploitation of the memorable setting is definitely to be commended, so hopefully he can build on these qualities in future. Chernobyl Diaries certainly isn't the worst example of this kind of schlock, but so much more could have been done with its near-ingenious premise.

Reviewed on: 28 Jun 2012
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Young holidaymakers get more than they bargain for when they hire an "extreme" tour guide who takes them to the abandoned town where the Chernobyl nuclear reactor employees used to live.

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