Chernobyl Diaries is absolutely not a satisfying viewing experience. Not that it was going to be great, or anything. But the intense, overriding degree to which it is not-great and in fact anti-great is still surprising: the film is a uniquely deadly combination of the poorly-conceived and poorly-executed all whipped up into a zesty cocktail of awful. It's frustrating in basically every way it could be.
The pitch: three young Americans are in Europe - Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and her recently-dumped BFF Amanda (Devin Kelley). In what is, unquestionably, the film's most effective sequence - sneakily, it's the very first thing that happens - we see these three tourist their way around great cities of that continent, shooting themselves having fun on their smart phones and thereby obliquely pointing out that despite its pedigree, Chernobyl Diaries isn't technically a first-person, found-footage movie, and that it could in fact look worse than it does if it had been (though Jesus, it looks bad). It is a light, trivial, smallish sequence, and it captures in charming detail the feverish energy of being enthusiastic and young and just a bit stupid - Natalie at one point declares to the folks back home, with great joy, "We're at the Tower of London!" while standing in front of what is quite unambiguously the Tower Bridge, but maybe that's a forgivable mistake, and I have no idea if we're supposed to notice it or not.
Anyway, it's enough to make the gang pretty easy to like right from the get-go, and that turns out to be useful since it's the last time we're apt to like any of them. The story properly begins when they arrive in Kiev, where Chris's older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) has been living the flippant life of an ex-pat for some time now. It's he who comes up with the rather poorly-received idea that instead of heading right to Moscow (where Chris plans to propose to Natalie, because there ain't nothing so romantic as the Kremlin), they should go on an "extreme tour" to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site - or rather, the abandoned town of Prypiat, just outside of Chernobyl, but given how much energy the film has to spend defining for its audience what happened at Chernobyl, I suspect that a film called Prypiat Diaries wouldn't have attracted an audience outside of hardcore Ukrainian documentary fans, and they would end up being disappointed.
Paul, you see, knows this spectacularly colorful fellow named Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), who has been doing Chernobyl tours for five years now, so the four Americans, plus another couple - Australian Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Norwegian Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) - all pack into Uri's military surplus van for what is meant to be a quick trip in and out. Only, the Ukrainian government has apparently decided to crack down on these little radiation playdates, for Reasons That Are Mysteriously Kept Secret, and by the time Uri has snuck everyone in through the totally undefended back road, there's just enough daylight left for a short tour followed by a return to the friendly, radioactively stable confines of Kiev, and if something awful happened e.g. a mysterious Something destroying their engine, that would be awfully bad for everybody. And so it happens, and so it is.
To be fair, Chernobyl Diaries never quite makes it clear what is the exact nature of the beings lurking around - well, duh, there are beings lurking around - they're heavily implied to be former Prypiat residents turned into cannibalistic mutants from the fallout, but that's never clarfied. So the good news is, you aren't obligated to view the movie as a tremendously offensive trivialisation of one of the all-time worst nuclear disasters in human history. Just encouraged to do so.
That said, tasteless is by no means the worst thing about the movie: almost every single element puts in at least a fighting argument for that title, in fact. The characters, who are stupid beyond belief, and also largely shitty, especially Paul (whose arc consists of bullying everyone into doing what he wants, and then feeling bad that he did so - we are allowed to assume that this exact dynamic has happened throughout his and Chris's whole life, which is not called "character development" so much as "chronic sociopathic behavior") suck; the acting sucks, though not as bad as the characters; the production values really, spectacularly suck, because Chernobyl Diaries is some kind of asinine hybrid of cheap digital horror of the Paranormal Activity breed - for as has been heavily mentioned in the marketing, PA auteur Oren Peli is this film's co-writer and producer - with, y'know, actual narrative filmmaking. This is a singularly unfortunate choice, because part of the appeal of the found-footage subgenre is that it's an excuse for having dodgy lighting and worse cinematography in a place that makes narrative sense. But when all the visual shortcuts of that style, including whiplash-inducing POV camerawork and forced, awkward editing (so many fades to black, and none of them work) are used in the service of a movie with normal shot set-ups and scene construction, it just looks cheap. Maybe good enough that if it were a DTV picture, we could overlook it, or at least only snark about it a tiny bit, but as a significant release in proper movie theaters, it's simply unforgivable for anything to look this bad without any purpose other than, "I'm Oren Peli, and this is what I do". Not that Peli directed; that honor falls to visual effects artist Bradley Parker, who has absolutely no interesting ideas at all, though he stages the one really effective jump scare - a new and intriguing number called the Spring-Loaded Bear - well enough, I suppose.
But this is all routine "lit with flashlights and boosted gain on the camera" low-budget stuff, and the result isn't atmospheric so much as it is muddy and illegible. It's about as scary as trying to read a book with your cell phone as a flashlight.
So, in addition to looking like hell, Chernobyl Diaries presents us with a slow build (good) to a lot of running around and screaming (bad), with absolutely no rules governing the creatures' behavior other than that they should be wherever it will cause the actors to jump and be shocked. The rules governing the protagonists' behavior, meanwhile, seems to consist of "determine which is the absolute most stupid direction you could possibly head in, and then head there", over and over again. And this is also something that the seasoned horror fan has to start ignoring or suffer forever, but it's such a massive problem in this film, from the second that Uri decides on absolutely no logic at all to go chasing wolves in the middle of the night, abandoning the relative safety of the van, up to the final chase scene, where the dwindling survivors invariably head down and into the dark patches because... the cannibal mutants don't know their own home turf well enough to find them, maybe? Because it is better to fight strange, inexplicable humanoid beasts in tight, gloomy corridors than out in the open with moonlight? Frankly, I don't know, and that's probably a good thing: if I did, then I'd be as intelligent as a character from Chernobyl Diaries, and if that were the case I'd deserve every bit of what I had coming.