"Chernobyl Diaries” is like a PSA for what not to do if you’re a character in a horror picture. The characters in this movie commit just about every boneheaded decision a person can possibly make under their circumstances, reaching a whole new level of stupidity. There seems to be an assumption that for a horror movie to arrive at its second act, the characters need to be complete morons. That unwritten rule is a load of bull though. The characters in “The Exorcist” and the various films by Alfred Hitchcock weren’t idiots. Even in recent thrillers like “The Crazies” and “Insidious,” the characters were all modestly intelligent. In “Chernobyl Diaries,” the true villain isn’t the mutants, the radioactivity, or even the big bad government, but the sheer idiocy of the heroes.
The film follows several young adults who are taking in the various sights Europe has to offer. A guide named Uri, played by Dimitri Diatchenko, offers to take these dummies on a tour of Pripyat, an abandoned city with radiation so high it can kill a person over a couple days. They, of course, think it would be a brilliant idea to go to a deserted, radioactive city with a strange man they know nothing about. The gang arrives at the city’s entrance to find European guards that will not let anyone in. One would assume that these people would take a hint and go home. Instead, Uri takes them to an unguarded entrance on the other side of the city. Common sense? What’s that?
After exploring the city, the band of stooges return to the van and discover that the cables have been pulled. Uri apparently wasn’t intelligent enough to foresee his car potentially breaking down in this abandoned, radioactive city. Since he works alone and there is no cell service, the idiot squad is stuck in Pripyat. From there on you know the drill. The city turns out to be populated by mutants, people start dying one by one, and these characters continue to make one brainless decision after another. There’s a particular scene in which one of the kids explores a creepy, broken down bus. One of his friends tells him not to go in. He responds, “But what if something’s there?” Um…yeah, that’s exactly why you shouldn’t go in there, you dunce!
The screenplay was helmed by Oren Peli, the man behind the first “Paranormal Activity.” Upon initial release, many moviegoers hailed “Paranormal Activity” as the scariest film ever. As time passed, people would come to realize this was an exaggeration. Regardless, “Paranormal Activity” was still an effective thriller with plenty of fun scares. “Chernobyl Diaries” doesn’t have the sense of mystery or dread that empowered “Paranormal Activity.” It just goes for one easy gotcha moment after another, never surprising the audience.
It doesn’t help that the mutants chasing our heroes are severely uninteresting threats. The common problem with mutants/zombies is that they are all basically just brainless savages with no personality. For once can’t there be a movie with a mutant/zombie who’s intelligent with character traits and a motivation? Granted, this would betray the entire concept of what these creatures are supposed to be. But if vampires can sparkle and werewolves can morph without a full moon, why can’t there be a charismatic mutant?
Director Bradley Parker occasionally delivers a nicely lit shot or a cool set piece. For the most part though, “Chernobyl Diaries” is bogged down by the annoying sensation of been there, done that. There aren’t any scares or inspired twists in the entire film. Familiarity is the last emotion that a horror movie should make the audience feel. The only thing that might have saved “Chernobyl Diaries” is if Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford’s characters from “The Cabin in the Woods” had showed up. It’s just too bad they can’t be in every horror picture .
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.