What a wasted opportunity. Somebody — presumably writers Oren Peli and Carey and Shane Van Dyke — had the fine idea of capitalizing on the current anxieties surrounding nuclear power in a post-Fukushima world (hello, San Onofre!) by sending the usual group of attractive young people on an extreme tourism outing to Pripyat, the town built to house employees of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine. (Pripyat was evacuated after reactor four of the plant exploded in 1986.)
The disaster sent huge plumes of radiation into the atmosphere. Horrific birth defects started showing up in the children of those exposed. Exaggerating that terrible reality into a race of mutant zombies must have seemed like a no-brainer, and the combination of abandoned town and derelict reactor provided a ready-made, thoroughly plausible setting.
The only problem is that the writers, together with director Bradley Parker, forgot to fashion a movie out of their premise. Instead they turned on a camera and filmed people running and dying. No, not at first. At first, the film has a nicely restrained buildup — nothing overplayed, just gradually escalating signs of looming menace. Too late, the audience realizes the formless feel of things is not part of the setup — it’s all there is. There’s no story: no discovery, no development, no plan, no significant character interaction, no surprise, no nothing except they go, they get stuck, and bad things start to happen. Even the one suggestion of larger meaning — nature reclaiming its own — gets undermined. It’s as if Parker knew he had a cool concept and a killer location and let it go at that.
It’s bad form to complain about the movie a director didn’t make, so I won’t yammer on about what I thought should have happened. But I will say that when there’s as little going on as there was in Chernobyl Diaries, it’s all but impossible not to entertain such thoughts. The good news is that Bradley knew enough to keep things short: the running and dying is over in 90 minutes.