In one of my favorite episodes of Pinky and the Brain, the plan to take over the world involves staging an accident involving a microwave and non-dairy creamer, because nobody really knows how they work. It’s funny because the audience is in on the gag and isn’t supposed to take it seriously. In Chernobyl Diaries, radioactivity is treated in kind of the same way, but this time it doesn’t have the same effect, in part because they’re trying to be serious but are treating us in the audience like we’re idiots.
Chris (played by Jesse McCartney) hasn’t seen his brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) in a couple of years, ever since Paul moved to Russia. But they’re going to remedy that with a Eurasian vacation on a trek from London to Moscow. Chris brought along his long-time girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Dudley), who in turn brought her recently-single friend Amanda (Devin Kelley). Things are going well and they’re having a great time, but when they reach Kiev, Paul learns of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make their trip even more special. He met a man named Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) who’s offering them the chance to explore the site of the Chernobyl reactor, infamous its 1986 meltdown. The area is still contaminated and isn’t exactly open to the public, but Uri can get them in, and if they only stay for a couple of hours they won’t have enough exposure to cause any damage.
Although Chris is understandably hesitant to go, the allure is too great for Paul, Amanda, and Natalie, and Uri provides stereotypically Russian overly-masculine assurances that everything will be fine, so Chris is outvoted. They meet up with Michael and Zoe (Nathan Phillips and Ingrid Berdal), a couple of other tourists lured in by Uri, and head off for Pripyat, the name of the city that housed the reactor. When the disaster struck, residents had only minutes to gather their belongings and evacuate, so Pripyat is like a ghost town. There aren’t really even any animals around during the day, so they have the whole place to themselves. But there are creatures that come out at night, and when Uri can’t get the van started when it’s time to leave, they’re going to have much more contact with those creatures than they’d like.
On the surface, Chernobyl Diaries is a lot like the horror classic The Hills Have Eyes set in Ukraine. But the differences make all the difference. In The Hills Have Eyes, we get to know and understand the creatures, we learn how they came to be, and we can even empathize with them. But in Chernobyl Diaries, we don’t really even get a good look at the creatures, much less form any kind of bond with them. We don’t know anything about them, and the film unnecessarily muddies the water about how they came to exist in the first place.
The film also fails on an artistic level. In addition to an excess of darkness, we also get a lot of annoying 360-degree shots in which a camera makes a tight circle around a character from low to the ground so we see a lot of empty sky. There are also some strange audio choices, with once scene drowning out the characters’ dialogue with music, and another featuring the faint and completely out of place sound of a heartbeat. Since we don’t really ever get to see the creatures, sound is often the only way we know they’re around, but nothing we hear is really all that ominous.
But the biggest problem with the movie is that it is not believable. The characters make too many obviously-bad choices, and the climax (if you can call it that, since there’s no anxiety or sense of urgency) relies on a mistake that I simply can’t imagine anyone making, even in the dark in an unfamiliar place and when being chased by unknown beings. The film has no respect for the intelligence of its audience, but perhaps the most intelligent ones are the people who don’t see it at all.