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Chernobyl Diaries nails its dreary, post-nuclear meltdown Ukraine setting but not much else. This anemic horror film was written and produced by Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli, and provides little bloodletting, special effects or suspense. Several young friends join a burly local for an "Extreme Tour" of Prypiat, the stricken city next door to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant that suffered a catastrophic explosion in 1986. This is, of course, a terrible idea, and the group gets stranded in the abandoned city overnight to disastrous results. Chernobyl Diaries doesn't shoot to scare and miss its mark; it never finds the nerve to frighten its audience and spends 86 minutes going through the motions.
Peli proved he could frighten without flashy effects in Paranormal Activity, and Director Bradley Parker adopts his producer's see-little, imagine-much philosophy of terror to mixed results. Chernobyl Diaries was shot on location in Hungary and Serbia in buildings architecturally similar to those in Prypiat, Ukraine, where radiation levels still are elevated. The scenery is foreboding and adds much to the proceedings, and the filmmakers did a bang-up job creating Prypiat from a host of other structures. When the young foursome - including singer Jesse McCartney and Norwegian actress Ingrid Bolsø Berdal - arrives in town with tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), they roam the desolate streets and explore the crumbling apartment complexes that housed plant workers before the explosion. Chernobyl Diaries captures recognizable architecture like the nuclear plant during daylight, but fudges on the scenery once night falls.
Things begin going downhill when Uri discovers the wires in his van have been destroyed. Afraid of wild animals and getting lost somewhere in the 12 miles between his chariot and the military checkpoint outside town, Uri suggests the group spend the night and seek help the next morning. Chernobyl Diaries conveniently makes Uri a lone operator of his business, so no associate will try to find him, and cell phone service is nonexistent in the nuclear city. The night is neither silent nor holy, and outside forces threaten the group's safety. Although early scenes promise later suspense in rubble-lined stairwells and decrepit indoor swimming pools, Chernobyl Diaries devolves into shooting in dark, non-descript hallways and the pitch-black outdoors.
The film's antagonist is more silly than frightening, and the run-up to the big reveal is mostly unexciting save a late descent into the heart of the plant's reactor. Chernobyl Diaries was reportedly shot for only $1 million, and Parker and Peli have trouble orchestrating jolts without showing much of anything to instill fear in the actors. There's only so much fun to be had watching the actors run around in the dark without knowing what they are running from, and Chernobyl Diaries allows its players to split up and disappear rather than get picked off in front of an audience. Peli's low-budget filmmaking is admirable, but the lack of suspense here scuttles the film. The final moments of Chernobyl Diaries do it no favors, either, and trivialize all that came before. A unique setting is not enough to overcome a lack of scares and some striking similarities to a certain 1970s low-budget thriller, and Chernobyl Diaries is ultimately a disappointment.
Much of Chernobyl Diaries is shrouded in darkness, but the 1.85:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer gets the job done. Early scenes in Kiev offer striking colors and detailed nightscapes. Skin tones are natural throughout, and the image is adequately detailed and textured. Once the crew reaches Prypiat, the film adopts a dreary grey color scheme and a softer look to complement the foggy surroundings. Black levels and shadow detail are surprisingly good despite the near absence of light during later scenes, and I noticed only a few compression artifacts and no artificial sharpening.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is not as aggressive as I might have liked, and misses several opportunities to fire up the surround speakers and add to the creepy atmosphere. Dialogue is clear and well balanced, but off-screen effects remain mostly in the front channels. The surrounds are used for some ambient and terror effects, but the sound design is not particularly immersive here. English, French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are also available, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This review is for the "combo pack" version of Chernobyl Diaries, which includes the Blu-ray, a DVD copy of the film and a code to stream it via UltraViolet. The discs are housed in a Blu-ray eco-case, which is wrapped in a matching slipcover. There is little in the way of bonus material here. Uri's Extreme Tours Infomercial (1:19/HD) is a mock commercial hosted by the film's tour guide, and Chernobyl Conspiracy Viral Video (2:25/HD) is a short, pointless "expose" about the Chernobyl disaster. Things wrap up with a deleted scene - "Welcome to Kiev" (0:49/HD) and a strange alternate ending (1:50/HD).
The see-little, imagine-lots style of filmmaking can create an effectively spooky horror film on a limited budget, but for this to work a film must create tension somehow, even if lacks flashy effects. Chernobyl Diaries, which was written and produced by Paranormal Activity director Oren Peli, sends a group of young adults on an "Extreme Tour" to the Ukrainian city abandoned after the 1986 nuclear disaster. The film's setting and sets are effective, but the outside forces that terrorize the cast are hardly seen and create little tension. Chernobyl Diaries is so spartan with its terror that the film is ultimately a dull experience. Skip It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.