What do you get when you cross a group of vacationing young adults, a creepy abandoned town, a van that doesn’t start, and radioactivity?
Why a horror movie, of course - here called "Chernobyl Diaries." (The "diaries" is kind of a misnomer since no one in the film is keeping a diary and no diary is "found," but it worked for that vampire TV show and they don’t keep diaries either.)
This version of tourist-trap scariness was created by "Paranormal Activity"- wunderkind Oren Peli and revolves around two brothers - Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) and Chris (Jesse McCartney) - who along with Chris’ girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley) and her best friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) are all travelling through Kiev on their way to Moscow. It’s unclear as to why this was the trip of choice, but I guess some kids these days are weirdly adventurous.
Soon enough Paul gets an offer he doesn’t want to refuse. An "extreme tourism" tour guide named Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) offers to take the group to Chernobyl - the site of the now infamous nuclear reactor disaster. Reluctant at first, the group finally agrees to check the place out and along with two random Aussies - (played by Nathan Phillips and Ingrid Bolso Berdal, added to the group for the sole purpose of upping the body count) - the crew is soon on their way.
The first clue that things are a little sketchy would be the border patrol that won’t allow Uri into the gates of Chernobyl. For someone who has supposedly taken groups on this same tour, he seems genuinely surprised he can’t sweet-talk the guards to get inside. Nor do the guards seem to recognize him. Naturally, he knows a back way (why didn’t he go this way in the first place?) and soon enough they are in.
Filmed in Serbia and Hungary, the film looks great and gives you a good sense of the stillness and isolation of the cement and mortar town that was abandoned in minutes. While the characters aren’t fleshed out, they are fairly distinguishable and don’t fall in line with the usual "why are these people even friends?" category so common in these sorts of horror film "groups." While Paul is a bit of an annoying fast-talker, he’s relatable enough as a character that we understand his appeal.
Needless to say, the six will have a few good scares that seem harmless enough, but when Uri’s van won’t start, things go downhill from there. Surprise, surprise. This isn’t really a scary movie, but it has its fair of suspenseful sequences. There are some nice jump scares and some white-knuckle moments, but as it enters the third act, interesting plot points that seemed like set-ups for something cool get lost amidst the running around and screaming.
Ultimately, the "secret" of what is frightening our heroes is really exactly what we would expect it to be when dealing with a radioactive environment. And when it’s all over, it gives us an ending that has been done to death (no pun intended) with answers never given. Given the main concept, it really wouldn’t have been hard to offer some sort of full explanation; not to mention, there are about six or seven twists that could have made this film more original, but the filmmakers never bother to go there. Instead, they give us what they think we want and everything we expect.
We respond with a shrug.