New to Blu: Chernobyl (2019) - Reviewed

2019 was a big year for horror movies, with critical and commercial hits such as Us, Midsommar and Crawl.  It has also seen many unexpected minor successes with the likes of Brightburn, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and most recently It: Chapter Two.  For as many unforeseeable horrors as the multiplexes can throw at the viewing public at large, the scariest and most horrifying stories are always going to find their footing in the real world we live in.  Which brings us to what is unquestionably the most terrifying and utterly horrific piece of film media to arise in decades and one whose merits, techniques and messages will be debated over and studied for years to come: HBO’s original miniseries Chernobyl.

Broken up into five separate near feature-length installments and starring Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård and Emily Watson, Chernobyl in short chronicles the cataclysmic ordeal that was the April 26th, 1986 nuclear power plant explosion in Russia and the unfathomable horrors the radiation unleashed upon the unsuspecting human bodies within range of the fallout.  From beginning to end, the closest successor to the likes of televised nuclear holocaust shockers such as Threads and The Day After to come along in decades is sheer unadulterated white knuckled terror.  If there ever was a gate to Hell on our planet, it first opened up that fateful day and changed the surface of our planet and our understanding of the deadly power of nuclear energy forever.

Utilizing the best production and visual effects crew money can buy, we’re taken back to that day and are captivated like passing by a road accident we can’t look away from almost immediately.  Created by writer Craig Mazin with director Johan Renck helming all of the episodes, the project wasn’t simply a flash in the pan but took years of development going back to 2014 with Mazin undergoing intensive research to produce the most factually accurate account possible from the perspective of a mindset who never encountered such a thing before.  Mazin also visited the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone prior to filming and by the time the cameras began rolling, the project was in his blood and became a timelessly relevant story that had to be told, however grisly the gory details became.

Playing out in real time with still stunning real footage serving as a blueprint for recreating events that are still hard to believe actually happened, Chernobyl wades knee deep through virtually every aspect of the ordeal with keen attention paid to the physical and psychological damage the catastrophe wrought upon the continent.  In scene after scene, you’re fumbling on the floor for the other half of your jaw.  There are moments of unspeakable bodily horrors you can’t unsee, moments of naked lies from the government to its people that will fill you with rage and even more bewilderment that such an extreme threat to mankind of this nature was allowed to happen in the first place.

Shot in Vilnius, Lithuania to recreate the long since abandoned city of Pripyat, which has now inexplicably become a renegade tourist attraction despite the very real dangers of radioactive contamination still plaguing the barren landscape, Chernobyl carries an astonishing level of realism about itself despite not being able to shoot on the real ground zero itself.  Photography within the long-since decommissioned Lithuanian Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (dubbed ‘Chernobyl’s sister’) only adds to the show’s incredible attention to detail, creating something that doesn’t feel like a dramatization but a snapshot of a bygone era whose dangers are just as palpable now as they were then.

Coupled with the film’s stunning attention to visual minutiae for realism is a truly deeply dread-soaked soundtrack created by Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (Joker).  A frequent former collaborator with the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, her original score for Chernobyl makes the chilling use of samples of sound recordings from real nuclear power plants, creating notes of mechanized raw fear coupled with her own vocals which spell doom and gloom over all of the events playing out onscreen. 

One sequence which particularly stands out for its use of vocals comes during the truly bleak railway ‘Bridge of Death’ sequence where residents of Prypiat gathered to watch the Chernobyl fire as radioactive fallout rained down upon their unsuspecting selves.  That we already know their fate as mournful vocals fill the soundscape makes the already horrendous moment that much more dreadful to watch.

Then there are the performances by the show’s three leads, Jared Harris as chief director of the cleanup efforts Valery Legasov, Emily Watson as composite character Ulana Khomyuk and Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina who becomes a formidable ally to Watson and Harris’ characters.  All three give their all in impassioned performances, with Harris and Skarsgård tasked with exuding emotions that touch on grief of their own impending deaths coupled with a fighting sense of duty to prevent a worse disaster from occurring.  Emily Watson’s composite character comes off as somewhat distracting at times but the overwhelming scope of the scenario being dramatized is large enough for viewers not to care or fixate on her existence in the story.

The response to the first airing of the first episode of Chernobyl on HBO was unprecedented, opening to unanimous critical acclaim before becoming the fourth highest rated television program of all time.  The show received nineteen nominations at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards and took home a total of ten Emmy wins including Best Limited Series, Best Writing and Best Directing.  The show sparked renewed interest in the story of the Chernobyl disaster as well as an even deeper inquiry into the show’s historical accuracy.  While some artistic liberties were indeed taken, notably the creation of Emily Watson’s character, a side-by-side comparison with the real footage and dramatized footage will show a remarkable attention to detail accounted for note by note. 

A great deal of the disaster still exists in a prism of speculation, but no one can deny the impact it had upon our planet and the fears it stoked of such a cataclysmic event ever happening.  This is by no means easy or pleasant viewing but it is utterly captivating and a still vital conversation the world entire needs to have on a topic which happens to have a still tightly kept lid on top of, obscuring any kind of public or political discourse. 

In recent years despite warnings of still present radiation levels, people have been visiting the exclusion zone as a rogue tourist attraction.  Those keen on visiting the stomping grounds of what is considered to be the worst nuclear power plant accident in world history may want to view this series in full before thinking about embarking on such a deadly excursion, provided this show doesn’t give any and all who view it nightmares for years to come.

--Andrew Kotwicki