About five years ago, Oren Peli took a moderately clever idea and executed it moderately well, giving birth to the unlikely and lucrative Paranormal Activity franchise. Now, for his first feature screenplay credit since (no, he did not write Paranormal 2 or 3), Peli has a better concept, one with broader scope and even more potential for quality chills. And he hasn’t a clue what to do with it.
Peli’s best move would have been to keep all of Chernobyl Diaries to himself, getting his story to the page on his own, and getting his butt back behind the camera. Perhaps he’s burned out from trying to make a go of network TV—he co-wrote all eight episodes of ABC thriller The River, which the network canceled two weeks ago—because he passed off creative duties to some clearly inferior filmmakers. It’s appropriate that the young cast spends a good deal of time running in circles—it’s a metaphor for first-time director Brad Parker’s repetitive, colorless action.
We’ve got an established genre (tourism horror, if you will) and a solidly creepy setup, but Parker demotes Diaries to generic basics. The story follows a half-dozen travelers who meet a self-made “extreme tourism” guide in Kiev, a bulky hulk named Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) who offers to take the gang to the ghost town of Prypiat, adjacent to the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Once a city of some 50,000, it was abandoned almost immediately after the accident; 25 years later, it’s a giant empty museum piece.
Spooky, right? The film succeeds in conveying a sad desolation when the group arrives, as they bear witness to a barren apartment complex and decaying amusement rides that never saw the May Day celebration they were intended for. (By the way, hooray for accuracy: The accident did occur on April 26, and Prypiat was evacuated April 27.)
It’s only a matter of time until things go bad, and these newly minted adults are themselves abandoned in one of the most isolated places in the world. Stuff gets scarier in the dark, creatures surface, blood spills. You know the drill.
As the cast runs out of escape routes and options, Parker, Peli and additional screenwriters Carey and Shane Van Dyke (grandsons of Dick) run out of ideas. The remaining travelers—including Jesse McCartney, Olivia Dudley and Dudley’s cleavage—move through the dark, speedily escaping some sort of wild dogs, mutant people or both. Not only does the entire middle act consist of a series of mini-sprints through darkened hallways, but the characters run through some of the same passageways and rooms more than once. It’s the “definition of insanity” turned boring.
For a moment, though, there was some glimmer of hope for depth in the dark, as the final survivors seemed to be descending into a stark dungeon. Were they going below ground as some sort of symbolic drop into hell, a punishment for disturbing sacred ground that was destroyed by man and reclaimed by nature? Nah, just another room with some steps. Oh well. We’ll always have Kiev.
Director: Brad Parker
Writer: Oren Peli, Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke
Starring: Devin Kelley, Jonathan Sadowski, Ingrid Bolsø Berdal, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Dimitri Diatchenko
Release Date: May 25, 2012