Starring: Ingrid Berdal, Dimitri Diatchenko, Olivia Dudley, Devin Kelley, Jesse McCartney, Nathan Phillips, Jonathan Sadowski
“So, there’s this place called Pripyat. It’s the town right next to Chernobyl. Uri, who is really excited to take us there, is an extreme tour guide. He’s going to show us this city that was abandoned overnight. Literally. They had no time to take anything. Factories, schools, stores, homes apartments, everything’s still there. Imagine the photo shoot you could have there, Amanda.” (Paul, Chernobyl Diaries)
I’ve got a fascination with abandoned towns. I love the idea of exploring a location trapped in time: a once thriving place that, for whatever reason, was suddenly abandoned and left to nature to take over.
The premise of Chernobyl Diaries speaks directly to that part of me. And then ruins it all by throwing in baldy zombie mutant things.
The film follows four young American sods – Chris, his girlfriend Natalie, his brother Paul (who lives in Ukraine) and mutual friend Amanda – travelling across Europe as so many like to do.
Not content with seeing the usual sights of Paris, Kiev, Moscow and the like, Paul suggests the four sign up for an ‘extreme tour’, which in my mind is one where the tour guide has a bomb strapped to him, but apparently is something different.
Instead, the extreme tour they sign up for is a van trip round Pripyat. This abandoned town sits right next to the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which famously suffered a catastrophic nuclear accident in 1986 in real life.
Teaming up with two more tourists – an annoying Australian chap and his Norwegian girlfriend – the group meet up with Yuri, their tour guide.
Their trip to Pripyat looks to be cancelled when their van is stopped at a Chernobyl Exclusion Zone checkpoint and they’re refused entry. In most circumstances that’d be a fairly clear indication that they aren’t supposed to be there.
Yuri, however, knows of an abandoned checkpoint elsewhere and decides to take the group into Pripyat that way instead. Oddly, none of them seem too concerned by this.
Once they get to Pripyat the group begin exploring its abandoned ruins, but things start to go tits up in a number of ways. Other than the obvious radiation in the air, of course.
Firstly, the block of flats they’re exploring happens to be inhabited by a bear. Secondly, when they try to leave Pripyat, Yuri can’t start up the van and they soon realise they’re stuck there.
And thirdly, it turns out there aren’t just bears out there, but wild dogs. Oh, and mutant people who want to kill them. Zoinks.
One thing I’ll say for Chernobyl Diaries is that the first 30 minutes look gorgeous. Partly shot in Hungary and Serbia and partly using actual home footage shot in Pripyat, there are all manner of things to gawp at as the group wander around.
An abandoned ferris wheel makes for a particularly impressive sight: looming over our protagonists, it’s an obvious symbol of the dissolution of happier times if you want to get all wanky about it. I just think it looks cool.
During this initial exploration period the film also starts to suggest there’s more to tour guide Yuri than meets the eye. In one scene in particular, as he explores the abandoned belongings of one room, it seems he has ties to Pripyat and possibly lived there once.
Not that we ever find out, because once they get into the van and realise they can’t leave everything goes downhill rapidly: both for the tour group and the viewer.
What follows is a series of bewilderingly stupid decisions that completely remove any sympathy you may have had for the characters, starting with some of them deciding to venture outside of the van, in the middle of the night, shortly after a pack of wild dogs had attacked it.
Supported by annoyingly shaky camerawork (not shot by the characters as in Blair Witch, mind, merely a stylistic choice), we then follow the now dispersed group as they explore a parking lot, are chased by dogs, are attacked by mutant fish (seriously) and eventually end up inside parts of the Chernobyl power plant itself.
While this is going on a bunch of sloppily handled ‘scary’ bits are scattered throughout, with hordes of mutants attacking the group. That the frantic camerawork means we never really get to properly see them or even focus on what’s going on is immensely infuriating.
Eventually we’re hit with a ‘twist’ ending that makes absolutely no sense, is not really properly explained and will just make you wonder what the whole point of it all was.
The frustrating thing about Chernobyl Diaries is that it starts off so promisingly. It looks brilliant, has characters that seem reasonably realistic, plants some interesting story seeds (such as Yuri’s apparent history with Pripyat) and is set in a location with so much potential.
It’s just so disappointing that this potential is ultimately squandered in favour of what essentially becomes a shit shaky-cam ‘zombie’ movie.
There aren’t even any diaries in it, either.
SHOW ME THE TRAILER: