The premise: a handful of backpackers take an “extreme tour” of Pripyat, the Ukrainian town that housed workers that staffed Russia’s doomed Chernobyl reactor. Their guide is Yuri, a swarthy (if likable) Spetznatz trooper turned tour operator. After wandering around creepy-ass Pripyat for a while, the gang discovers Yuri’s van won’t start. So they’re stuck. Overnight. And to make matters worse, they start seeing and hearing signs they’re not the only ones overnighting in the abandoned city…
Chernobyl Diaries is all about atmosphere. The plot is relatively uninspired — irradiated cannibal mutants stalk hapless victims. What this flick has going for it is Pripyat:
Soviet officials ordered the evacuation of Pripyat about 24 hours after the Chernobyl reactor melted down. Wikipedia has a fairly chilling translation of the evacuation order, which it cribbed from a National Geographic special:
For the attention of the residents of Pripyat! The City Council informs you that due to the accident at Chernobyl Power Station in the city of Pripyat the radioactive conditions in the vicinity are deteriorating. The Communist Party, its officials and the armed forces are taking necessary steps to combat this. Nevertheless, with the view to keep people as safe and healthy as possible, the children being top priority, we need to temporarily evacuate the citizens in the nearest towns of Kiev Oblast. For these reasons, starting from April 27, 1986 2 pm each apartment block will be able to have a bus at its disposal, supervised by the police and the city officials. It is highly advisable to take your documents, some vital personal belongings and a certain amount of food, just in case, with you. The senior executives of public and industrial facilities of the city has decided on the list of employees needed to stay in Pripyat to maintain these facilities in a good working order. All the houses will be guarded by the police during the evacuation period. Comrades, leaving your residences temporarily please make sure you have turned off the lights, electrical equipment and water and shut the windows. Please keep calm and orderly in the process of this short-term evacuation.
Chernobyl Diaries effectively leverages on this history for the first half of its running time. In fact, some of the creepiest scenes are of Yuri simply leading the backpackers around the abandoned city. This makes for a far more compelling film than a handheld camera pointed at an eight-year old’s bedroom. Or watching blankets rustle in a suburban home. It also offsets shortcomings in plot and characterization. That’s more than you can say for most horror gimmicks (ahem–found footage).
Many horror films live or die by atmosphere. Chernobyl Diaries is one of them. I’m not saying this is a great movie. It might not even rate as average. But it’s certainly not abysmal. It deserves far more credit than it’s gotten.