If your idea of a fun vacation is touring the quarantined ruins of a world famous nuclear fallout zone, you’re asking for trouble. And trouble predictably finds the idiot tourists at the center of the horror-thriller “Chernobyl Diaries.”
Produced by Oren “Paranormal Activity” Peli and making weirdly minimal use of the trendy “found footage” technique, “Chernobyl” is about as lazy, routine and hilariously absurd as horror movies get. It also has the added baggage of appearing exploitative of a real life tragedy (while also uncomfortably recalling Japan’s nuclear disaster just last year, which made worldwide headlines six months before this film went into production).
Four indifferently conceived Americans (Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski, Devin Kelly and Olivia Taylor Dudley) decide to experiment with a bit of “extreme tourism” in Ukraine. They hire local guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) to take them to the abandoned city of Pripyat, where employees of the Chernobyl nuclear plant were forced to evacuate following the infamous 1986 meltdown disaster. They’re joined on this adventure by an Australian couple (Nathan Phillips, Ingrid Bolso Berdal) who are blessed with even less defined personalities. The only thing you’re curious to know about any of these people is who’s gonna die first.
“Chernobyl” has the unfortunate timing of being the first major release in which stupid young people keep making stupid decisions that lead to a bloodbath since “Cabin in the Woods” turned this subgenre on its head. Watching the film with a post-“Cabin” point of view becomes slightly surreal. It’s almost as if you’re seeing the blueprint for the lame-brained clichés Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard skewer and warp in “Cabin.”
“Chernobyl” is the kind of movie where someone wisely exclaims “Can we just get the f— out of here!?” but no one else bothers to listen. And another character wonders aloud “What if something’s back there?” as justification for exploring a bullet-ridden bus after already narrowly escaping several life-threatening situations.
The silly, shallow people in “Chernobyl” are so spectacularly stupid and keep doing such massively moronic things that you start actively cheering for their deaths. That gets in the way of even the few relatively successful suspense sequences orchestrated by director Bradley Parker (a visual effects pro with credits including “Let Me In” and “Fight Club”). Thanks primarily to its eerie setting and the somewhat smart/somewhat misguided decision to hold back revealing the villains for a considerable amount of screen time, the film does manage a few effective frights.
But it generates far more laughable attempts at scares and ineptly shot and edited action scenes. Whenever the main characters get close to the mystery villains, the camera goes completely haywire. So not only do you not get a good look at the bad guys, you barely see anything at all.
Despite Peli’s involvement and the kids on vacation set-up, “Chernobyl” isn’t a found footage movie. It just features the same nauseating handheld camerawork and horrendously bad semi-improvised dialogue that serve as hallmarks in those films. Turns out the discovery that anyone would willingly mimic the worst aspects of a found footage movie without any narrative reason to do so is more legitimately terrifying than anything on screen.
“Chernobyl Diaries” opens everywhere May 25