With Oren Peli's name plastered all over the trailers and poster art, I had a very different picture bobbing around in my head as to what kind of movie Chernobyl Diaries was gonna be. It's not a radioactive Paranormal Activity, mostly -- but not completely! -- shying away from the found footage approach that made Peli his bones. It's instead an aggressively uninspired take on the tried-and-true haunted house formula, with only its backdrop and a slightly larger playing field setting it apart from a couple hundred thousand other horror flicks.
Conceptually, a genre film set in and around Chernobyl ought to be wildly effective. I mean, I'm unnerved just looking at still photos of the remains of Pripyat. Chernobyl Diaries attempts to capture much of that same decaying atmosphere, and maybe it's not all that surprising that the movie is at its best when it immerses itself in that sort of imagery. In the down moments -- when nothing overtly horrific is happening and the tourists are skulking through the remains of a once-bustling city -- Chernobyl Diaries does a brilliant job building
The meat of Chernobyl Diaries is an hour of people running around screaming and crying, generally in the dark and with obscured, blink-and-nevermind-you-missed-it glances of whatever it is that's tormenting them. The movie never manages to generate any real tension or suspense...just filler to bridge a parade of jump scares. I'd definitely chalk myself up as a fan of the atmosphere, and some of the jolts connect, but it's just...really routine and derivative. The characters are pretty thinly sketched straight across the board, and they become more and more interchangeable as the movie slogs along. Jonathan Sadowski's asshole brother is the only particularly memorable character, and Sadowski is far and away the most capable actor of the bunch too. 'Course, when you're sharing the screen with Jesse McCartney, I guess everyone comes across like Olivier. The thin plot and meek approach to horror come across as a watered-down version of The Descent or The Hills Have Eyes. Lotsa shaky-cam. Very little gore. Paint-by-numbers horror all around. Rent It.
Yeah, yeah, there are a few minutes' worth of camcorders and camera phones, but by and large, the photography in Chernobyl Diaries is surprisingly slick and polished. Well, and shaky, but that's kind of par for the course. Outside of a few intentionally rough-hewn moments, this high-def presentation is crisp and nicely detailed. Contrast remains rock solid throughout, and black levels are appropriately deep and inky for a movie set largely in the dead of night. Colors, meanwhile, come through about as well as the gloomy, desaturated palette will allow. No heavy-handed processing or missteps in the compression ever intrude. Kind of a lousy movie, sure, but at least its release on Blu-ray looks nice enough.
Chernobyl Diaries is dished out on a single layer Blu-ray disc. The movie's presented without any matting and has been encoded with AVC. An anamorphic widescreen DVD is along for the ride too.
One thing that intrigues me about this six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is its sparing but effective use of the surround channels. It seems like a very deliberate choice to keep the rears dead silent for the bulk of the movie, reserving them to make the greatest possible impact: unseen creatures skittering around, frenzied mutant dogs swarming from every direction, the creaking of that rickety van, eerie drops of water...you know how it goes. Chernobyl Diaries' dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly throughout, and it's balanced very well in the mix. The score occasionally makes the subwoofer snarl, and it kind of goes without saying that the stings punctuating the jump scares are colossal. No real complaints.
Along for the ride are Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in French, German, and Spanish. If you're really into that sort of technical information, the Spanish track is
Mercifully short, clocking in around six minutes in all.
The Final Word
Uninspired but still vaguely watchable, Chernobyl Diaries is an unnerving backdrop in search of a movie. Chances are that you already have The Descent and The Hills Have Eyes on the shelf, so why shell out twenty bucks to buy this third-rate knockoff? With few extras to speak of and borderline-zero replay value, Chernobyl Diaries is at best a marginal rental, and even that's being kinda generous. Rent It.