“Chernobyl Diaries” is the latest collaborative work from Oren Peli, famed for the creation of the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, and its shows. While not a found-footage film precisely, the almost documentary-style camera work gives it that raw emotional feeling that is a trademark of the found-footage genre.
Although somewhat distracting at times, this really helps the first 30 minutes of “Diaries” which, although laden with a few too many jump-scares, is beautifully atmospheric. This is aided by the minimalist soundtrack only occasionally used to enhance the aforementioned jump-scares.
The streets of Pripyat, Ukraine where most of the film takes place are the film’s greatest asset, chillingly beautiful and profoundly creepy.
The film tells the story of six oblivious tourists stumbling around Eastern Europe, which is something of a genre staple ever since the “Hostel” films. They all decide to visit the irradiated ghost town of Pripyat, near the site of the 1986 Chernobyl reactor explosion. Their tour guide is a former Spetsnaz (Russian special forces) operative who runs an extreme tourism business and manages to sneak them past a quarantine around the city. An irradiated ghost town quarantined by the military under suspicious pretenses just screams horror movie fodder, yet almost no one bats an eye. Only one member of the group has any objections to this course of action, making it clear that these must be some of the most oblivious characters in the history of cinema.
The film starts to work quite well once it manages to make it to the outskirts of Pripyat. The abandoned buildings, empty streets, and other remnants of human civilization lend themselves naturally to the horror genre.
Along with the streets of Pripyat come its inhabitants, pale and vicious fish, ravenous dog packs, and even a bear or two. These are all real-world inhabitants of the city and legitimate threats to real-life travelers. As the group navigates these dangers, the viewer gets to see a glimpse of what could have been a legitimately frightening fight for survival. Alas, this makes the actual plot of the film pale in comparison.
Just as the film seems to be better than expected, it plunges into something worse than mediocrity.
Sadly, as soon as the real monsters of the film are introduced, the entire thing falls apart at the seams. The monsters are half-glimpsed, pale-skinned mutants that seem to belong in a campy 70s flick. They aren’t particularly scary or unique as far as monsters go, even within the confines of the tired mutant cliché.
The characters are hardly even worth mentioning, entirely forgettable stock characters with less personality than a brick and an equal amount of acting talent. Any potential for character development or viewer empathy is discarded in favor of lots of heavy breathing and running.
The film loses what little it had working after the characters decide to run through concrete bunkers and shadowed corridors for a good half hour, slowly being picked off one by one. All the atmosphere is lost, all the potential for something better trampled into the dirt.
The film continues its downward spiral to the very end, with an ending so cliché and predictable it was almost surprising — almost.
After its initial success, “Diaries” quickly becomes nothing more than “The Hills Have Eyes” set in Eastern Europe. Even the flow of its plot points is nearly identical to that of the 2006 “The Hills” remake. The discovery of sabotage, the car graveyard, the first attack; all of these scenes are practically shot-for-shot recreations of scenes from “The Hills” — except the villains in “The Hills” were at least somewhat unique and frightening.
“Diaries” is a simplistic and formulaic disappointment after a surprisingly good first 30 minutes.