Is housing a horror flick around the worst nuclear disaster in the history of humanity an indelicate move? Yes, but this Oren Peli-produced string of spooks is no more or less exploitative than the turgid films (World Trade Center, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) that strip-mine Ground Zero to birth feature-length sanctimony in the name of hollow honor. It's all too soon, but at least Chernobyl Diaries is modest in its encroachment.
Shot by first-timer Bradley Parker in that sterile, observational style popularized by Peli's Paranormal Activity franchise, the movie follows Americans Chris (singer Jesse McCartney), Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley) and Amanda (Devin Kelley) as they travel to Kiev to visit lone dude's expat hermano Paul (Jonathan Sadowski). After clumsily establishing that Chris has a history of stepping in shit thanks to his impulsive older brother, the crew digs its collective heel into a fresh pile, heading on an "extreme" tour of Prypiat, the creeped-out atomgrad evacuated after the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. By nightfall, ex-Special Forces tour guide Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko) realizes his van is inoperable, placing the group — who is not alone, boogity boogity! — in grave radioactive danger.
Atmospherics is Diaries' strongest suit — the eerie set work is at once overwhelming and claustrophic, and Parker does strong work capturing the Pompeii-like awe of a city literally ditched in minutes. And while it's not worthy of a full complimentary smooch, the movie does an adequate job avoiding insensitive chatter about body counts. It's the wound-up characters, uneven scares and lazy-bones conclusion that end up holding this unorthodox creature feature back.