Starring: Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski and Olivia Dudley
Directed by: Bradley Parker
Filmmaker Oren Peli is at a crossroads in his career. After his extremely low budget and famously so frightening it even scared Spielberg into producing it Paranormal Activity opened in 2009 and became a worldwide phenomenon, he found himself being in with the big boys of Hollywood and having his ideas funded for projects by studios instead of it being the other way around. Also, with Paranormal behind him, he now was put in a position of trying to top himself. Serving as a producer on last year’s admittedly phenomenal horror film Insidious helped get his foot in the door, while the clunking TV show he produced called The River put it right back out. Peli’s next attempt at proving he is here to stay is Chernobyl Diaries. A sometimes on, mostly off horror thriller that has a few choice scary moments, but for the most part proves that Peli’s sophomore slump isn’t quite over yet.
I will give Chernobyl Diaries this much: when the words ‘this film is a result of real documented footage’ weren’t the first things that flooded across the screen, I felt better at what I was about to watch. I haven’t made my thoughts on ‘found footage’ type films a secret (I honestly can’t stand them) and I know that I am in the minority saying that. I think the notion of telling a story through the eyes of a camera that someone just flat out won’t put down is completely ridiculous (only one that mostly did it right in my eyes was Cloverfield) and it was refreshing to see Peli tell his story in a more conventional way. The actors, for the most part, are pretty good given the roles they’re in. You have the two brothers who love each other but fight as brothers do. You have a couple who have been together a month. And, you have the proverbial couple that contains a guy getting ready to propose to his girlfriend. Again, nothing new, but all the actors play their situations out pretty well. You also have the constant addition of a group photo that we as an audience know is the last one taken before inevitable doom hits. A big problem, like most of these types of films, is we never fully establish just who and what most of the characters are doing here. For example, who the hell is Yuri the tour guide? And, who is that other couple that just happen to join the tour? Just a smidgen of back story would have been nice, if we are meant to care about these people at all.
The film is directed by visual effects artist Brad Parker (Fight Club). And, I must say, he does a pretty decent job of building up tension. I definitely jumped a couple times. The fake jump scares were few & unlike most of these films, actually felt earned. Although, there were a few subplots that didn’t really make a whole lot of sense (how was it they were able to get in exactly, and it is nice to know THAT is where I can find a bright flashlight if needed). Also, if Parker really wants to make it as a director, he has to keep an eye on continuity problems (pay attention to a scene where a window is broken to see what I mean). For the most part though, I would say that Chernobyl Diaries is decent for a debut feature and I wouldn’t be surprised if Parker makes a pretty big splash with his next film (as opposed to the puddle he built here).
In conclusion, I would say that as an overall scarefest, Chernobyl Diaries fails. Although, it isn’t for lack of trying. Parker pulls out all the stops in trying to build tension. He even uses the ‘lack of sound in the dark’ technique that Paranormal used, and does it pretty well. Although, even at 90 minutes, Chernobyl Diaries really gets to be a chore to sit through and I was finding myself checking my watch (yes, I still wear one of those) on quite a few occasions. While Peli proved he can direct a megahit Paranormal Activity) and produce another one (Insidious) I feel this film still proves that he is having a problem finding his voice. With how uneven Chernobyl Diaries was, I think that in his mind Peli is feeling the exact same way. The guy is talented. But, he is going to need to do more than send stray dogs on nuclear wasteland towards characters we don’t even care about to scare audiences in the future. Maybe if he had put them in a haunted two story house…….