Strong horror movies have one rooting for the survival of their characters, while weak horror tends to leave one wishing instead for their imminent and grisly demise. There's a sort of validation that comes with the reliable pick-’em-off routine of the latter that allows -- maybe even encourages -- audiences to feel superior for a stretch of time, because we would never be so stupid as to put ourselves in these situations. Perhaps this is why we as moviegoers so often place ourselves in the same situation of watching other people put themselves in a bad way. “Chernobyl Diaries” rewards this tired tradition with a handful of jolts (not the same as frights, mind you) and half a dozen protagonists leading themselves to certain doom with each passing misstep.
Putting aside the questionable morality of setting a schlocky thriller on the grounds of an international tragedy (imagine the outcry there would be against a similar “cannibal humanoids lurking at Ground Zero” horror flick), we get four Americans abroad -- Bradley Cooper Lite (Jonathan Sadowski), DiCaprio Jr. (Jesse McCartney), the Blonde (Olivia Dudley), the Brunette (Devin Kelley) -- joined by an Australian Guy (Nathan Phillips) and His Norwegian Girlfriend (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) for a bit of "extreme tourism" to the military-guarded remains of Pripyat, a city left abandoned in the wake of the 1986 nuclear disaster there. But when the day trip ends and their van won’t start, guess who’s not a-lonnnnnne...
What ensues is “The Hills Have Eyes” recast with willful idiots putting themselves in harm’s way (rather than an innocent family stumbling into it), with producer Oren Peli (“Paranormal Activity”) and co-writers Carey and Shane Van Dyke (Asylum knockoff “Paranormal Entity”) swapping out nuclear testing subtext for stale Cold War-era villainy. Our heroes indulge in pointing out the obvious -- yes, that Ferris Wheel probably was in town for a carnival, and of course that beeping Geiger counter means it’s time to move -- before stumbling down yet another dark hallway after another streak of blood.
At best, “Diaries” can be credited for not being constructed as one more found-footage outing, despite similarly handheld cinematography by Morten Søborg, the presence of Peli, a title that doesn’t make much sense otherwise, and the fact that several characters are toting around Flip cams, still cameras, or their own signal-less phones. (It’s a minor miracle to be spared the "Rear Window" homage/flashbulb scare these days, especially when all of the ingredients are right there.) Maybe 30 seconds of the film are devoted to the characters actually reviewing footage left behind by a missing pal, but even that gesture fails to show or tell the audience anything that hasn’t already been clearly established in the scene.
Divorced from bouts of on-the-nose dialogue, the cast is feasibly frazzled throughout, with each of their characters either related, romantically linked, or resourceful enough to be worth chasing down, even in the worst of circumstances. Visual effects vet Brad Parker makes his directorial debut here, and while his work is often serviceable in the face of such monotonous material, it becomes apparent that he’s more keen on employing stealthy figures and critical moments of silence or darkness to generate suspense than “gotcha!” jolts and cheap music stings (which isn’t to say that those aren’t also present).
What a shame that the menace is ultimately proven to be a familiar one; that the film ends on a far-fetched, far from frightening note; and that it takes a good hour for one of the leads to suggest that “we need to be smart about this.” You want to be smart? Don’t take an unauthorized tour of a nuclear disaster site.