It opens with vacation footage. Three stereotypical American tourists do stereotypical American tourist-y things, skipping and laughing and loudly discussing how much they love being alive. For an instant, it appears we’re in for yet another “found footage” horror flick—not the worst thing (I’m actually a big fan of REC), but not quite what the trailers sold. Just then, the camera pulls back, revealing that our intrepid globetrotters are using an iPad to share their recorded adventures with a friend.
I hope you enjoy that subversive use of cinematic language, because it’s the last clever moment Chernobyl Diaries has to offer.
I used to think that a poorly-scripted horror film could still succeed as long as it sustained an adequate level of tension; after all, even a barely-readable Creepypasta can leave the reader feeling uneasy (a few of the “Candle Cove” tales spring to mind). But despite the filmmakers’ best efforts (the scene in which the protagonists first arrive in Pripyat conveys a palpable sense of isolation and vulnerability), the intriguing premise never overcomes the screenplay’s many weaknesses, which include:
An unhealthy dependence on cheap jump scares. At one point, the writer becomes so desperate to make the viewers spill their overpriced popcorn that he conjures a bear from thin air, only to just as quickly banish it back to the depths of Plot Contrivance Limbo.
A complete failure to convince us that the protagonists deserve any sympathy—no matter how enthusiastically the filmmakers attempt to manipulate our emotions (that business with the engagement ring, for example).
An embarrassing number of plot holes and narrative dead ends. The mutant fish, for instance, promise a juicy set piece, but soon join the Vanishing Bear in Plot Contrivance Limbo.
John Carpenter in his prime could not have salvaged this mess of a story. The uneven pacing, unconvincing performances, and uninspired twists leave only a handful of atmospheric, suspenseful scenes that, unlike the Chernobyl disaster, quickly fade from memory.
[Originally written May 30, 2012.]