IMDB.com notes that Renny Harlin is "the most successful Finnish film director in the history of Hollywood." Uh huh. You see now, that's what we call damning with faint praise. Well, the Finn directing this mess has much to answer for. Yet another venture into the found-footage genre of horror, this story-telling technique has long past worn out its novelty.
Holly, a fetching blonde American and contemporary U of Oregon psych grad student, becomes inspired to investigate the mysterious and tragic loss of nine Russian hikers in the northern reaches of the Ural Mountains in Russia. These folks did not meet their end recently. No, she has, apparently, found psych dissertation gold way back in the Cold War era. (It seems a odd thing over which to obsess, but then I'm not a psych grad.) Armed with a tidy research grant, she assembles a team: Camera Guy, Sound Girl, and two highly experienced Mountain Dudes to lead her expedition. Now, having never been to the Urals myself, it struck me as just a touch risky to venture into the range that divides European Russia from Asian Russia in the dead of freaking winter particularly when not one of the team speaks Russian. Sure, maybe the Urals are small potatoes set next to the Rockies, but we're talking about a Russian winter here, the kind of winter that murdered Napoleon's forces and, in a later era, stopped Hoth's 4th Panzer Army in its frozen tank tracks. Of course, I'm neither blonde nor 21, as Holly is depicted, and maybe she skimped a bit on 19th and 20th century European history.
The movie begins with Holly's explication of the mystery surrounding the lost hikers. We are shown black & white stills of bodies, grotesquely frozen, partly buried in ice and snow, young, experienced hikers who met a terrible fate. The psych angle is explored a bit here as we are told that the freezing unfortunates paradoxically stripped their clothes off or were even barefoot when they expired. Pat explanations, however, are batted down by Holly and Jensen, a/k/a Camera Guy. It can't merely be a phenomenon of freezing to death because at least one of the victims had signs of radiation poisoning. The mystery established, we are then treated to interviews of her hand-picked crew, our introduction to the doomed but attractive research team. A quick montage of their physical conditioning ensues, and then they're off to Chelyabinsk smack in the middle of Russia. A train ride north and by then they're cadging rides wherever they can find them to get themselves farther and farther north.
Now it's not a give-away to say they're doomed, because just after their departure, the film will cut to Russian newscasts reporting the loss of American documentary film-makers and, from then on, you will be watching what passes for their unedited footage. Considerable film time is devoted to the development of our characters: on the train, in a dim smoky Russian pub, trekking through the frozen wastes in snow shoes. The characters fail to gel, however, because the film is ruggedly devoted to that found-footage style. Don't look for artful scripting. Dialogue is convincingly ad lib, so convincing in fact, that I became convinced it was actually ad-libbed. That isn't a good thing. Actual conversations between people you don't know and who are not also wildly intoxicated will not often entertain or engage the viewer. The pace lags.
When a movie drags attention wanders. Our documentarians do receive the requisite warnings which must be delivered to all horror flick victims, warnings which they are required to ignore. Certain warnings will presage the plot twist at the end, but some of the warnings appear during this over-extended get-to-know-you section so I recommend that you keep painfully pinching yourself to remain alert lest that plot twist I'm warning you about seem egregiously un-presaged. I did not so pinch, and so I missed whatever brief foreshadowing occurred, or, alternatively, said foreshadowing was too enigmatic/subtle to count as foreshadowing had I even been fully alert.
The rope of tension in this film is fully slack in any case until they reach that dreaded mountain pass. They set up camp in the arctic chill. Holly, employing her trusty compact Geiger-counter, follows a radiation trail leading to a strange object deeply buried in snow. She begins pawing at with her hands and, in short order, she's somehow removed, oh, about 15 cubic yards of snow, a volume more suited to a backhoe than mitten-covered hands. Beneath the snowy mantle Holly reveals an iron doorway to a Soviet era bunker. Only the door locks from the outside! She doesn't tell the others just yet, however, because they already blame her for placing yeti prints in the snow around the camp. Attractive members of our party will now pair off for arctic circle tent sex. Mountain dude's phone is also recovered and so we have the footage of that as well. We all know what happens to young pretty people who romp with one another in a horror movie, but at least the pace finally picks up as our documentarians begin to drop. Tension makes it finally overdue appearance.
Now a less ambitious Finnish director might have been satisfied to create a mere creature feature, but instead the plot suddenly veers through the guardrail and straight down the snow bank and into Soviet-American Cold War conspiracy theory, a turn foreshadowed nowhere earlier in the movie. To make up for this lack of preparation, our surviving characters will uncover a trove of Secret Documents which Camera Guy has to hastily and sketchily tie in for us. This is nothing less than sloppy plot design, and this curative plot band-aid does not save the patient.
There will be blood, beasts, light gunfire and light gore. Fundamental laws of physics will be broken. I found the movie at least enjoyable when the horror finally gets rolling and our protagonists meet their fates, but it takes way too long to get there, and you just won't care a great deal about their loss.