If I were to give you just one guess for what the Chernobyl Diaries is about, you would be right.
Unless your guess was how a fortysomething woman learned to love again with a little help of pierogies and kasha. That was a bad guess. No, you know what it's about. And a little predictability isn't a bad thing. I like the fact that when I take a step, I can be reasonably confident my foot won't explode, or punch through the Earth and wipe out China.
So if I go into a zombie movie, I'm hoping there will be zombies. Ideally, it will also have something more than that -- interesting characters, a shotgun that fires other shotguns which then shoot normal shotgun shots, whatever. In Chernobyl Diaries, they reach for the lowest-hanging fruit with predictably mushy results.
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Jesse McCartney and girlfriend Olivia Dudley have come to Kiev to see McCartney's brother Jonathan Sadowski. McCartney's looking forward to the next leg of their trip -- Moscow -- but on the way, Sadowski talks him into a bit of extreme tourism.
The destination is Pripyat, a city outside Chernobyl that's been abandoned since the nuclear reactor melted down. But when they try to leave, they find the van has broken down -- and they're not alone.
Because they're being haunted by the ghost of the reactor itself! Which may actually be a demon that wants to impregnate their children! No, that's not what happens at all. This is a reference to the fact Chernobyl Diaries is produced and co-written by Oren Peli, aka that guy who filmed a movie in his house because he was poor and then made so much money from that movie he could buy five new houses without even worrying about it. Paranormal Activity is what I'm talking about here.
Chernobyl Diaries is directed by some camera guy, but it bears Peli's definite stamp. A small group of people with sketched-out backstories encounter something horrible, also with a sketched-out backstory. But while Paranormal Activity rocked like a hurricane made out of Jimi Hendrixes, Chernobyl Diaries is like a weak breeze through a French horn.
OK, that's pretty unfair. I just wanted to say that. Initially, Chernobyl Diaries is fairly good. Sadowski's got a nice intenseness as the adventurous brother. The sets are pretty amazing. I mean, on the one hand, they're just a bunch of abandoned buildings. Those are normally only available in the faraway land of everywhere, but the ones here feel particularly forlorn. Possibly because some of the filming was done in the real-life city of Pripyat. That place is creepy. In fact, I bet what really happened is the residents got too scared to live there, so they all ran away and then caused the meltdown so nobody would call them wimps.
Within all this spookiness, director Bradley Parker is able to rustle up some scares and suspense once people start getting attacked. By keeping the action on the fringe of the screen or just beyond, we're left to wonder.
Specifically, to wonder when anything else will happen. Because Chernobyl Diaries doesn't have a third act. Characters are established, they get to their destination, bad things start to happen... and then, well, more bad things. But not in a progressive, escalating way. There's no buildup. With nothing built up, there's nothing to knock down. Or to cheer for and say "Yay, look at that thing that has been built."
I don't know who to blame, so I'll just sort of casually mention that co-writer Shane Van Dyke not only wrote Titanic II, but is also the author of Paranormal Entity, which just maybe wouldn't have existed if Paranormal Activity hadn't come first.
Then again, he had two co-writers, including Peli. And between them, they only sketched out the faintest of characters and the faintest of stories. You can only milk the mystery so far. When the mystery turns out as predictably as Chernobyl Diaries -- and the only reason it's able to be dragged out at all is through manipulative camerawork -- the result is pretty shrug-worthy.