All the warning bells were a’ ringin’ when this film was announced. Oren Peli was attached, meaning CHERNOBYL DIARIES would turn out to be a wobbly, obnoxious ball of jump scares. The man behind the camera was a visual effects artist, so there was a good chance it would be shot with all the finesse of a car commercial. Last but not least, the film was written by Shane and Carey Van Dyke, two men behind countless Asylum atrocities. Then we found out just days before its release, it would not be screened by the press, which is never a good sign. This was going to awful, folks. I skipped the theatrical release and decided to wait for a DVD rental, a cheaper and more convenient option (after all, I can drink at home to dull the pain). Well, the night has finally arrived. I popped the disc in, pushed play and sat back, waiting for the brain melt that would inevitably come. What I got wasn’t so much a brain melt as eye strain.
We can start with what CHERNOBYL DIARIES does right. It’s reasonably well acted. That’s the first big plus the film has going for it. I expected nothing but incompetence and was pleasantly surprised to find that everyone did their job fairly well. Second, the first half is gorgeously creepy. The locations used are undeniably cool and really lend the film a special kind of atmosphere. Third, the dialogue (considering the writers) was actually decent. Nothing was especially melodramatic or obnoxious. Everyone spoke like real people, not like what a bad writer thinks people sound like when they speak (pay attention, Mr. Zombie). I will admit that I found myself enjoying the film at the 30 minute mark. My fears were assuaged. But soon everything started going south.
This is not a found footage movie, so why does it feel like a found footage movie? It feels like a found footage movie because visual effects artist-turned-director Bradley Parker films the whole thing (aside from establishing shots) with a free floating camera. The camera moves alongside the characters, passes through hallways with characters, moves around between the characters and shakes like someone is holding the camera every time action breaks out. It’s supposed to give us a “you are there” feeling but all it does is create incoherence. The other HUGE fault with the movie is that is it way too dark. Much of the final half of the film is lit using nothing more than a flash light or diegetic ambient lighting. When you combine the inability to see anything clearly with a camera that won’t stop fucking bouncing, sweeping, panning, and shaking, all the visuals are reduced to little bits of visible action bouncing around inside the frame. There were three times when I actually had to rewind the film just so I could make sure I saw something correctly. I get it. It’s all about atmosphere. It’s all about “less is more”. Bullshit. What fucking good is a film if I can’t see it?
It’s a little hard to not be upset when a filmmaker throws away all the potential of his project. For the first half, this was a good film and it could have really been great had the filmmaker not shot himself in the foot. I mean, make no mistake, this really isn’t anything more than THE HILLS HAVE EYES relocated to the Ukraine, but it had huge potential, much more than I would have expected just by looking at the cast and crew. Damn shame that Parker dropped the ball.