“Chernobyl Diaries” is old wine in a new bottle. Not that you can’t catch a buzz off old wine. Set in an abandoned Ukrainian town right next to the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of the catastrophic 1986 explosion, the horror film is moderately spooky, visually stylish and tinged with mystery.
What -- or who -- is haunting Pripyat, the former home to the thousands of Chernobyl workers who fled after the disaster?
But the story -- co-written and produced by “Paranormal Activity” director Oren Peli, and directed by first-timer Brad Parker -- is a little stale, with a bouquet that’s overly reminiscent of zombie.
The setup is fresh. A group of young travelers sign up for a bit of extreme tourism, a real phenomenon in which people pay to visit dangerous places. Piling into the dilapidated van of a shadowy former special-ops agent known only as Uri are 20-somethings Chris, Paul, Amanda, Natalie, Michael and Zoe (Jesse McCartney, Jonathan Sadowski, Devin Kelley, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Nathan Phillips and Ingrid Bolso Berdal).
Played with admirable restraint by Dimitri Diatchenko, Uri is one of the best things about the film. Unfortunately, after the van breaks down and the group is stranded in Pripyat as night falls, Uri is the first to go. Was it the pack of wild dogs roaming the woods around the village that got him or something else? One by one, the remaining six visitors start to get picked off, in a game of “Ten Little Indians” that is a standard trope of the genre.
There are some decent frights to be had here, and the scenery nicely evokes a decrepit theme park. A rusted Ferris wheel, left over from the town’s abortive May Day celebration, is a beautifully spooky touch. But the lack of common sense demonstrated by the protagonists, who foolishly venture closer and closer to Chernobyl -- Geiger counter be damned! -- is truly scary.
Yes, it’s one of those movies, where everyone except the people on-screen seems to know better than to enter the next darkened room. “What is this place?” asks Amanda, not once but twice, in a refrain that will sound familiar to anyone who’s ever bought a movie ticket.
Parker, a visual effects specialist making his debut as a lead director, keeps the film brisk, tight and good-looking, even if we never get a clear picture of the boogeymen. And the acting ensemble -- who refer to each other as “dude” about 300 times -- conveys reasonably believable human beings.
But there’s a nagging question at the heart of “Chernobyl Diaries.” It isn’t what, or who, is stalking these kids. After awhile, the answer becomes apparent, leading to a denouement that, while mildly exciting, feels like a ride you’ve been on before. The real question here is: Why are the film’s monsters so, um, monstrous? Radiation poisoning aside, the question is never adequately answered. They’re scary because we need them to be.
In the end, Amanda and her friends aren’t the only tourists seeking safe, pre-packaged thrills. We are too. Contains obscenity, violence and gore. Runs 86 minutes. © The Washington Post 2012