Chernobyl, Ukraine. The site of one of the worst nuclear disasters in history, and a chilling microcosm of the consequences should warfare step up to the next level. With locals and descendants still suffering from the fallout to this day – and indeed, for the foreseeable future – it seems a tad tasteless to not only set this film in the immediate vicinity of the disaster zone, but to portray its denizens as depraved, mindless mutants. But that’s where we are.
On reflection, it turns out that the mere question of taste is the least of Chernobyl Diaries’ worries.
Co-screenwriter Oren Peli brings with him a wealth of experience, having authored the Paranormal Activity franchise and stewarded the impressively jumpy Insidious, but little of the smarts that characterised his previous works are evident in the story here, which sees a troupe of young adults taking an ill-advised trip to the abandoned city of Prypiat.
Having established its central characters – which, for some reason, includes faded pop star Jesse McCartney – as an unpitiable bunch of dickwads, there’s no real emotional impact in seeing them individually offed one by one, largely thanks to various acts of abject stupidity.
The idiocy of the characters is neatly matched by the befuddled tone. Starting off on handheld camera, the viewing angle bizarrely switches to a more conventional view – albeit still with the same quality of the handheld camera – meaning that the footage comes across more as a cheap option rather than a storytelling device. Moreover, there are none of the jump-out-your-seat moments that made some of Peli’s previous films instant cult classics – the only scene with any real tension sees the group running away from a gang of radioactive dogs in broad daylight. There’s the occasional flourish – notably a young girl standing motionless with her back to the camera – that hints at another story beyond the film’s remit, but it’s not one that anyone seems interested in telling.
Ultimately, Chernobyl Diaries fails on almost every level, being unsatisfactory both as a low-budget schlocker and as a piece of entertainment. Instead of the claustrophobic chiller it promised, it turns out to be a cheap gimmick.