Four Americans, one portrayed by former pop idol Jesse McCartney (remember "Beautiful Soul"?), engage in extreme tourism with disastrous results in this mediocre genre picture.
McCartney is Chris, a bright youth eager to propose to his girlfriend. The charming couple and a friend are traveling to Eastern Europe from London, a trip shown at the film's beginning via a too-cool-for-school montage of snapshots and Flip Video footage set to Supergrass' still-fresh '90s hit "Alright." On their way to their final destination, Moscow, the group decide to join a tour guide on a one-day adventure to Chernobyl, the now-deserted site of a major Soviet nuclear disaster in the 1980s. The guide promises a brief and exciting step outside the usual, predictable tourist experience, but, of course, the group soon realize they are not alone and grave danger awaits in the shadows.
Each trailer, television spot, and poster indicates this film was conceived by Oren Peli, the creator of the Paranormal Activity franchise, but it is not a strict found-footage film, though it might as well have been: it is still shot with hand-held cameras and certain sequences are even presented as mobile-phone videos.
Chernobyl Diaries has one undeniable inventive element: its setting. Grey, desolate, and populated by ravenous wild animals and still-decorated, crumbling apartments left without a moment's notice by the families of the plant's employees, Chernobyl has a foreboding and haunted screen presence ideal for the genre. As long as one overcomes any justifiable misgivings regarding the use of a real and tragic European event as a vehicle for bargain-bin American scares, of course.
Otherwise, the film falters and then fumbles. The atmosphere and quiet suspense of the first half gives way to a chaotic, often incomprehensible, and never frightening finish, including an abrupt and foolish conclusion so unnatural it feels chosen at random out of a box overflowing with thinly conceived potential endings.
I am a firm believer leaving certain elements unexplained in this type of picture is for the best (the imaginations of individual moviegoers can often conjure more disturbing concepts and motivations than the writers themselves), but Chernobyl Diaries goes too far; the antagonists (mutant zombies?), always obscured by shadows and unstable shot compositions, are too dull and generic to raise the pulse, and the characters and performances are unspectacular even by genre standards, with the most interesting individual on the screen (the tour guide, a former soldier with melancholy eyes) removed from the action far too soon.