I must be honest with you guys, I’m a little biased when it comes to HBO Miniseries Chernobyl. I was super interested as soon as the great Jared Harris was cast to play the lead. Then they added Adam Nagaitis (who I really loved in AMC’s The Terror, if you haven’t watched that yet what are you doing!) and that was hook line and sinker. I was going to like this show no matter what. However, I’m not the biggest fan of non-fiction or biographical movies/series so I thought it was going to be a challenge. I can unequivocally tell you guys it is not a challenge, it’s beautifully terrifying.
Before we get to the review of episode 1, here’s HBO’s official description of the miniseries
“On April 26, 1986, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, Soviet Union suffered a massive explosion that released radioactive material across Belarus, Russia and Ukraine and as far as Scandinavia and western Europe.
Jared Harris portrays Valery Legasov, a leading Soviet nuclear physicist. As part of the response team, he was one of the first to grasp the scope of the unparalleled disaster that occurred. Stellan Skarsgård plays Soviet Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina, who is assigned by the Kremlin to lead the government commission on Chernobyl in the hours immediately following the accident. Emily Watson portrays Ulana Khomyuk, a Soviet nuclear physicist committed to solving the mystery of what led to the Chernobyl disaster.”
The first episode is titled 1.23.45 (the time the reactor explodes). Everyone has heard about the actual events of Chernobyl in history class, but honestly, I could not tell you a single factual thing about it. I thought it would a learning experience that would keep me interested through the acting and cinematography. I could not have been more wrong. Chernobyl is a horror series disguised as historical drama. And I love it.
The first episode is pretty much about incompetence from the top down. The reactor core explodes, but according to the Director (Con O’neil) and the chief engineer (Adrian Rawlins) that isn’t possible. According to the State that isn’t possible. The only people that know it’s possible are the plant workers that keep saying that there is no core. But like all things in Russia (past and present) if the State or your superiors say something it automatically becomes a fact, such as the readers only measuring 3.6 roentgens per minute (the highest the reader will go). They say that number isn’t dangerous throughout the episode, but we’ll see how high the real number is next week. The workers at the plant are absolutely screwed, because if radiation won’t get them the State will. Someone must go down and we know it’s not going to be the high-ranking officials.
If the incompetence and bureaucratic nonsense isn’t horrifying enough, everyone knows the devastation that radiation can cause. That’s what makes this a horror series. The monster might not be a werewolf, ghost, demon, etc. The monster is unseen with no motivations and no direction. It just seeps into everything and starts to eat. Whether that be the ground, wildlife, or humans. It shows no favoritism; it is indiscriminate and devastatingly hungry. We see this with firefighters that are called to put out the fire. They have no idea they are walking into the mouth of a beast that swallows all. We slowly start to see the effects the radiation has on them as the episode progresses. Whether it is Vasliy’s (Adam Negaitis) face getting more and more red and blistered. Or the unlucky soul that picked up a piece of graphite, which was supposed to be around the core, that littered the ground. We also know the people dancing and jumping around in the ash and the fallout are going to be in real trouble.
What really got me though was the directing and cinematography. The shots are stunning, which is to be expected by HBO at this point. Johan Renck shoots this episode as if it was a slow burning indie horror film. We know the monster, we know the problem, but no one is willing to accept there is a problem, and no one sees the monster as threat. There isn’t much in terms of characters yet, but Renck builds up the dread of the normal plant workers beautifully, who know something is horribly wrong and management’s unwillingness to accept that the monster has risen from the deep and is now feeding on everything in its path. Now that monster has a head start and we’ll get to see the disastrous consequences of not taking it seriously unfold.
Chernobyl is a must watch for anyone who enjoys great acting, great directing, beautifully shot scenes, and yes, the horror genre. I have already recommended this series to anyone willing to listen. Anyone reading this should too. All that is left for this series, as Jared Harris’s character Valery Legasov says, is madness.