Logline: A small group of dim Americans partake in some guided "extreme tourism": in this case, a pleasant afternoon in Pripyat, the city abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear reactor popped off. While there, these folks encounter bizarre, mutated wildlife and some other, more shambly inhabitants.
Initial buzz for this one around the Internet and from those in-the-know was quite poor, so imagine my mild astonishment to discover that Chernobyl Diaries is, while rather bland, never less than enjoyable. Its strengths lie in its restraint. While a majority of the studio fare oozed out over the last half decade has operated by the simple credo "More is More" (meaning: more entrails, more crassness, more jumps), Parker's film is content to eschew most of that and settle for an overall eeriness that we only catch through loose visual fragments, etched with little clear definition. An atmosphere like that sustained throughout the film's entire running time could have produced something quite neat, but unfortunately Chernobyl Diaries is bogged down with ruthlessly idiotic characters, inane plot points, and metered, sublimely goofy jumpscares (it couldn't avoid them entirely, I suppose. Watch out for one large, furry friend in particular). But the film almost gets a pass for these blunders--considering the frequency with which it allows us to simply observe the uneasy wonders of its silent wasteland and dread the horrors of its mutated wildlife off somewhere making noises in the distance*, we become able to forgive.
For me, the film's primary point of interest lies in its quasi-relationship to the found footage movement. Produced and from a story by Oren Peli of Paranormal Activity fame, the film has been somewhat misleadingly advertised as a thoroughbred found footage film, which is not at all the case (for instance, consider the film's title, which would jive with a found footage premise but in relation to the film I saw is sort of a head-scratcher). The film does contain two brief segments of footage culled from character-operated cameras (the requisite breezy character-establishing prologue and a later instance recorded on a character's cellphone, after the horror has started to unfold. This second sequence also has the fun distinction of being one of the few times in a found footage-esque film wherein a character within the film actually discovers and plays back some footage recorded by another. I might be the only one who enjoys noticing that). But on the whole, it might be more accurate to call Chernobyl Diaries a film inspired by the found footage genre. In every important way, the film looks and acts like one; we are supplied with abnormally shaky hand-operated camerawork that only allows us to observe the action from the relative perspective of our protagonists. The camera will often turn in the direction the other characters look in, scanning the frame for some sight of what is out in the darkness, as if it were an additional, ever-silent tourist. If found footage films are presented from a (predominately) first person perspective (discounting instances wherein characters put the camera down), and most other narrative films fall somewhere between third person limited and omniscient (and objective or subjective depending upon the presence or absence of narration), Chernobyl Diaries seems to create a hybrid--an objective third-person limited perspective that is nevertheless stuck in the thick of things, possessing no ability to distance itself from the action onscreen. I think this approach is a unique one (please, call me out if I'm wrong!) and a potentially beneficial one to horror films that I'm hoping will be noticed and tinkered with by stronger filmmakers; this approach may also be demonstrating an early example of some sort of lasting effect that the found footage movement may leave on contemporary horror cinema after its immediate boom tapers off. Regardless, I find it exciting. After all, it is this perspective that allows for the film's effective atmosphere of restraint and half-glimpses that we receive; when the shambling mutants burst into frame, the camera's natural response switches from lingering around to observe the grotesqueries and spoil the fun (the approach of most third-person horror films) to splitting as fast as it can, for the sake of its digital life. It breathes a feeling of immediacy into an otherwise stale and mostly unimaginative piece of exploitation. This, I think, is an improvement.
*Pripyat's vicious mutated wildlife is by far its most unsettling agent of horror. Dominating the film's first half, it's a shame when its various creatures are supplanted by mutated humans in the latter parts. The human element eliminates the film's early contention of the city being land "reclaimed by nature," so one wonders why the script makes such a point of it. And, regrettably, we haven't had a solid Various-Animals-Run-Amok feature in quite some time, either...