Review: Chernobyl Diaries

'Douchebags have truly become the heroes of the found footage movement.'

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Here’s a weird hybrid. Chernobyl Diaries is shot like a found footage movie but no character in the movie is using a camera. It almost seems like some producer saw a found footage movie and copied it, but he didn’t really get it. Only the producer in this case is Oren “Paranormal Activity” Peli himself!

A travel montage introduces Chris (Jesse McCartney), Amanda (Devin Kelly) and Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and then the film immediately ditches the camcorder. They meet Chris’s brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) who’s living in Kiev. Paul the troublemaker suggests an extreme tour of Pripyat, the abandoned town near Chernobyl. Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) leads the tour and also includes backpackers Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal.)

So as we follow this misguided vacation, the camera follows the rules of found footage but there is no camera character. The camera may stay in the van with some characters so it can’t really see what happens in the distance. But nobody’s holding the camera, so why would it be restricted? It shakes like handheld and rarely cuts, so it’s basically a series of master shots. They probably banged out all the long takes over a weekend. The Paranormal Activity sequels actually developed some clever photography. This is just a big screenful of nothing.

Not showing the monster is generally a good rule, but this is not Jaws. Director Bradley Parker doesn’t develop any techniques of suspense. He just lazily obscures the money shots the same way they do all the gags in those movies where the handheld video camera literally cannot see the monsters. These tourists wander abandoned places and hide in the dark, blatantly leaving room for the jump scares.

Douchebags have truly become the heroes of the found footage movement. These are characterizations, not characters. Paul is a player who’s acting out, showing off to Amanda. It’s thin and desperate. Amanda loses any credibility she may have had when she rationalizes Paul’s bad boy behavior. Chris is the practical but pussy little brother. He’s planning to propose to Natalie which is supposed to make us care about them. Natalie is the one who says, “Isn’t that where the nuclear meltdown happened?” You know, for the kids, because the audience for this movie doesn’t actually know what Chernobyl was.

This is pretty much an escalation of what’s happened in the genre. The Blair Witch kids were annoying. The Cloverfield kids were over-privileged. The Paranormal Activity family are passive aggressive abusive. So here we are with these douches. Everyone is snarky and messing with each other. That’s what happens when uncreative people play around. They have no imagination so they just accept rudeness. I guess that’s more my comment on what causes douchey behavior in real life, but I still don’t like to watch it.

It’s not even seven clichéd characters. It’s only three or four archetypes with some doubles. Michael and Zoe are basically Paul and Chris in their own relationship, a dominant instigator and his passive lackey resigned to going along with him. The group’s obligatory infighting is completely uninspired. The cast is particularly weak. Despite their problems, the Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield and even Project X actors have personality.

I suppose the abandoned fairground and housing complexes are good locations. That’s worth capturing on film, and showing the reactor in the background. The scare in the apartment they explore is a good one and there’s a good payoff after some of the group predictably splits up to look for help.

Chernobyl Diaries is only about 80 minutes, and then there’s an obnoxious Marilyn Manson song over the credits. It’s not even fun in a bad way, just in case you were considering that.