If you are a fan of “Paranormal Activity” reality-type horror stories, the ones pioneered by “The Blair Witch Project,” you might like 2012’s “Chernobyl Diaries.” Or not. It’s just as corny, just as phony, just as silly, and, worse, just as boring as the rest of its kind.
Oren Peli was the writer and producer of the first four low-budget “Paranormal Activity” films (and the director of the first one). This time Mr. Peli is back as the writer and producer of “Chernobyl Diaries,” and he hasn’t improved with age. Still, there’s a reason studios like him; his films cost so little to make, they usually return an enormous profit on their investment (e.g., “Paranormal Activity” cost about $15,000 to make and returned more than $193,000,000 worldwide). “Chernobyl Diaries” didn’t do as well: It returned only about $18,000,000 on an undisclosed budget. Still, you can understand the profit margins involved with these kinds of low-cost affairs.
Now, you remember Chernobyl. In 1986 there was a nuclear accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, an accident considered today the worst such disaster in history, spreading nuclear contamination over much of the U.S.S.R. and Europe. So, it’s twenty-five years or so later, and what do a group of young people on vacation do but hire a shady “extreme tourism” guide to take them to the city of Pripyat, which the calamity devastated. Its citizens left the city quickly, and now it lies in ruins, abandoned and desolate, but we know better, don’t we? Evil is evil, after all, and the viewer can guess what happens from the beginning of the story to the finish.
The best part of the movie? The end comes very soon, as the story lasts less than ninety minutes. The worst part of the movie? The end can’t come soon enough.
The actors playing the young vacationers, all beautiful people looking to be in their twenties or early thirties, are, understandably, less than household names: Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Olivia Dudley, Devin Kelley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Jonathan Sadowski, and as Uri the tour guide, Dimitri Diatchenko. This is, as I’ve said, a low-budget picture. But they’ve all appeared in various TV shows and short films, so it isn’t as though they are entirely amateurs. The director, however, Brad Parker, is a newcomer to the scene, this film being his directorial debut after spending the previous decade of his career in special effects. Special effects may also tell you something about the nature of the movie, although, to be fair, the director keeps them to a bare minimum. Well, yeah, I’m sure the movie’s cost had something to do with that, too.
The filmmakers use every cliché they can lay hand to. To make the action seem all the more real, the director fills the movie with typically jerky camera work, quick edits, extreme close-ups, and general awkwardness, as though an unskilled photographer were shooting the whole thing with an inexpensive camcorder. Think “Cloverfield.” Then we have to ask, Who’s taking the pictures? It isn’t any of the vacationers or the tour guide. Maybe they brought an amateur camera crew with them, just in case?
Then, too, there’s the matter of the characters conforming precisely to type. All six of the young tourists are hopelessly ordinary and dull. As with every horror film in the “Friday the 13th” mold that uses an ensemble cast waiting for their deaths, this one includes exactly no one we could possibly care about. Indeed, it is only the tour guide, Uri, who displays even the slightest discernable personality, so we as an audience don’t care what happens to any of them. It sort of diminishes the suspense, you know?
Not only are the group members devoid of charm, color, or personality, according to form they’re among the stupidest people on the face of the planet. One of them makes the arrangements for the group to go on this one-day tour of a deserted, radioactive city, and the rest of them reluctantly go along with it, despite the obvious hazards involved. I mean, the city was only a stone’s throw from the failed nuclear reactors, and almost everything in the place is still deadly. Who in his right mind would consider going there? Besides which, who would think it fun to go rooting through buildings of no historical value that have been in total disrepair for a quarter of a century?
The filmmakers shot the movie in Serbia and Hungary, not Ukraine. Well, at least they didn’t shoot it in somebody’s house, as they did with “Paranormal Activity.” The filmmakers flew to areas that resembled the creepy, deserted city of the story.
It takes close to the first thirty minutes of the movie just to get it started, for the group to arrive in Pripyat and rummage around before anything of interest (I use that word loosely) actually happens. You’d think the filmmakers could have made something more of this lengthy introduction, a little exposition perhaps, but they don’t. It’s just waiting.
And speaking of waiting, that’s what most of the film is about. Remember the “Paranormal Activity” films where you stared in silence at an empty room for about eighty minutes, with nothing moving, and then a door slams shut and startles you? Same thing here, except that people are usually moving–walking or running–when something jumps out at them.
What do you mean, when the group become stranded in the city because their van won’t start and their walkie-talkies fail, do they separate and go off alone from the rest? This is a standard-issue horror movie, so if they didn’t do this, they’d disappoint us.
Finally, can any horror movie these days be complete without the requisite creepy child? Not a stone unturned.
“Chernobyl Diaries” is possibly the most tedious horror movie since the last “Paranormal Activity,” with our only distraction watching a bunch of people who deserve what they get spending most of their time running and screaming. It’s enough to make a guy go running and screaming from the room.
The high-definition Blu-ray transfer uses a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to reproduce the movie in its native aspect ratio, 1.85:1. Unfortunately, the source material is rather run-of-the-mill digital photography, bright in daytime shots, murky in darker scenes, soft, somewhat blurred, veiled, and flat. I suppose there’s a reason for buying or renting the movie on Blu-ray because it is better than the standard-def version, just not that much better; and there is little in the way of a picture you’d want to see, anyhow, as the bulk of the story takes place at night and in dimly lit areas, with little detail or contrast. The overall impression is that of nondescript iron-blue and near black-and-white imagery.
The WB engineers provide a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track to reproduce the movie’s sound, although they probably didn’t need the best format available. Not that I don’t appreciate every last bit of fidelity I can get, but this film is mostly silent. We get dialogue in the film, which is fine, a bunch of yelling and screaming, which doesn’t need lossless sound, and a little crashing and banging around toward the end. Otherwise, there is some ominous music from time to time, and nothing ever seems to take much advantage of the surrounds.
You won’t find a lot of extras on the Blu-ray disc. The first item is “Uri’s Extreme Tours,” a fake infomercial lasting about a minute. The next is “Chernobyl Conspiracy Viral Video,” about two-and-a-half minutes, part fact, part fiction on the real-life disaster. Then, there’s a two-minute alternate ending and a one-minute additional scene.
The extras on the BD conclude with nine scene selections; English, French, German, and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired.
Because this is a Combo Pack, it contains the movie in high definition on a Blu-ray disc, the movie in standard definition on a DVD, and UltraViolet access for instant streaming and downloading (the offer expiring October 16, 2014). The two discs come housed in a flimsy Eco-case, further enclosed in a light-cardboard slipcover.
Everyone reacts differently to any movie. I found “Chernobyl Diaries” a complete waste of time; you may love it. There is little story involved, just a collection of young people stranded in a deserted city with strange things happening around them. The characters are interchangeable, so the audience has no feelings about them one way or another. There’s nothing interesting, creative, innovative, exciting, suspenseful, or scary about it. We just sit there and wait for it to be over, and when it is over, we wonder why we watched it in the first place.