Proving once again that catching lightning in a bottle is truly a rare occurrence, 'Paranormal Activity' creator Oren Peli conjures another spooky tale of a terrifying past threatening the present in 'Chernobyl Diaries.' Sadly, the movie is the sort with an appealing premise, but fails to make the best use of its setting. First-time director Bradley Parker goes through the motions as a group of friends find themselves having to survive a horde of radioactive mutants on the hunt. Unfortunately, the movie is essentially an exercise of clichés and generic scare tactics, failing to generate genuine suspense or making audiences care in the least for which of the stock characters can stay alive the longest. It is Alexandre Aja's 'The Hills Have Eyes' meets Neil Marshall's 'The Descent' filmed in the "found-footage" style, and its lack of originality really shows.
The movie's one selling point is that the filmmakers use the Ukrainian nuclear disaster site as its backdrop, which peaks my interest given the country's government finally lifting the area's restriction zone last year. According to interviews with Peli, the crew was never officially allowed to enter the ghost town of Prypiat, the city nearby the Chernobyl Power Plant, but some of the footage used during daylight sequences is suspiciously accurate to the design and look of the place. The large, rusted Ferris wheel with yellow cars proudly stands at the end of a completely quiet neighborhood, looming over two abandoned apartment complexes. The buildings face each other as their haunting silence surrounds the characters, creepily radiating some semblance of a town full of life with the noises of children running in the streets.
It's a fairly convincing start as audiences explore the streets and buildings with the characters, but Parker can't seem to sustain this same level of creepiness through to the end or take full advantage of it either. 'Chernobyl Diaries' was actually shot in Hungary and Serbia, where filmmakers found an abandoned Soviet military base and Nazi bunkers, which were used as tunnels during the last half hour. Such amazing locations would be fascinating to see, but sadly, that's never made an option as a majority of the picture is engulfed in darkness and shadows. Despite this, the cinematography of Morten Søborg ('Valhalla Rising,' 'In a Better World'), giving the picture an ominous, grayish tone and drained of color, is weirdly evocative and lovely in a gloomy, melancholic way. But like the shooting locations, it's all wasted on a movie that fails to maintain interest.
Wandering through these deserted streets — albeit, not for long — are a foursome of kids with little to no personalities that distinguishes them from one another. Pretty much from the start, we know they're all going to die because they're all equally annoying. And frankly, in this genre, the annoying people always die. Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and their friend Amanda (Devin Kelley) are visiting Chris's older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) living in Kiev. For fun, Paul signs up the gang for some "extreme tourism" fun before moving their vacation to Moscow. The tour guide, Yuri (Dimitri Diatchenko), is apparently an experienced hulking mass who is conveniently the first to encounter the unfriendly surviving locals. Norwegian Zoe (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and Australian Michael (Nathan Phillips) are a backpacking couple joining the tour and surprisingly last much longer than expected.
The only other surprises strewn throughout 'Chernobyl Diaries' are the several weak attempts at jump scares, which consist of nothing more than the usual sudden piercing shrieks and weirdos moving within the shadows. Ok, so it's not much of a surprise when you already know it's coming, and sadly, Parker does it. A lot. Fear comes in many disguises, but a bald albino we only see out of the corner of our eye screeching inside empty buildings and streets is not at all frightening. The only hair-raising moments involve a bear and being trapped inside a van surrounded by darkness. Everything else is by the numbers genre tropes. Using the Prypiat ghost town and its tragedy as the setting is a great twist, allowing for a genuinely creepy atmosphere, but it's all for naught in a story that contaminates the chillingly spooky possibilities.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Home Video brings 'Chernobyl Diaries' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. A DVD-5 copy of the movie sits comfortably opposite a Region Free, BD25 inside a blue eco-vortex keepcase with a shiny cardboard slipcover. After a couple skippable trailers, the screen shows a generic main menu with a static background.
Taken directly for an HD source, this digital-to-digital transfer is pretty much as we would expect. Aside from some very negligible and incredibly easy to ignore banding, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is, for the most part, immaculate and clean of any distracting debris. Nonetheless, the stylized cinematography, while faithful to the intentions of the filmmakers, keeps the picture from wowing viewers.
The entire palette is heavily subdued and drained of color, giving reds a dark purplish hue and making flesh tones appear flushed and sickly. The grayish, overcast tone is effective at generating an ominous mood and atmosphere, adding to the idea of the abandoned Prypiat seeming lifeless and sepulchral. The 1.78:1 image is immersed in deep, menacing shadows and rich, inky blacks that never stray too far. A narrow depth of field adds a good deal of dimensionality while contrast remains crisp and vibrant throughout. Details are well-defined with appreciable textures during close-ups, but the video is not exactly the sharpest around. All in all, it's an excellent presentation fans will enjoy.
'Chernobyl Diaries' also debuts with a very good DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack which delivers the goods, for the most part, but is unable to maintain a consistently spooky atmosphere. Rear activity is generally silent, almost noticeably so, but it would seem a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers. The town of Prypiat is supposedly surrounded by silence, so it makes sense and for the most part, it works. Yet, when creepy, random noises meant to occur behind the listener are utilized, the directionality is not all that convincing and can sometimes seem a bit distracting.
The lossless mix's strength comes from a wide and terrifically warm soundstage, displaying a well-balanced channel separation and clean, smooth pans across the screen. Vocals are fluid and intelligible in the center while other discrete effects broaden the image, keeping viewers engaged and alert. Dynamics exhibit lots of range with distinct clarity in the variety of disturbing noises heard during the second half when characters are running through the tunnels. Low bass is fairly deep with some nice depth, but doesn't come with lots of impact or a moment that truly impresses. In the end, it gets the job done, but also feels generally lacking considering the genre and the setting.
Arriving day-and-date as its DVD counterpart, the Blu-ray carries all the same special features.
Despite a creepy atmosphere and setting, the potential to effectively utilize the ghost town of Prypiat, Ukraine is basically wasted in this lackluster effort from first-time Bradley Parker. From the imagination of 'Paranormal Activity' creator Oren Peli, the movie is an exercise of stock characters, clichés and the usual sudden shrieks that go bump in the dark, engulfing shadows. The Blu-ray arrives with excellent video and a strong audio presentation. The supplements are forgettable throwaway junk, but the few fans out there might be satisfied with the overall package nonetheless.