I don’t consider myself a huge fan of horror films. This is mostly because they simply don’t scare me; oftentimes, the only thing in these movies that make me startled are cheap jump scares, which is why I usually find more enjoyment in watching excessively silly films like It, Evil Dead, and Cabin in the Woods. What’s more frightening to me are films and shows that are grounded in reality, portraying either historical or realistically frightening events that hit closer to home than most any ghost story. After watching the first trailer for Chernobyl, I was hoping the miniseries would deliver this level of true terror, and I’m pleased to say it does so with excellence.
One of my favorite attributes of this show is how it thematically portrays the heart of the exploded Chernobyl power plant reactor, as well as the ensuing fallout, as a monster of it’s own. The first episode was absolutely gripping; workers run around the plant frantically trying to figure out what happened as if they were on the set of one of the Alien films. A creepy but incredible score, along with class-A cinematography, sets an ominous tone as if these poor men were being hunted by a metaphysical beast, an aesthetic that pervades the entire show. The following sequence of events feels like a downpour of dread, as locals from the town of Pripyat are subsequently captivated, but horrifically ravaged by the spread of radiation. The rising blue-tinged smoke from the reactor core feels like a monster rising from ashes. As we see the physical effects of the radiation on those in the area, the miniseries thematically makes its audience feel like they’re witnessing the spread of some sort of demonic possession. The only difference is that this all really happened, an inescapable fact that resonates to a disturbing, yet satisfying degree.
The second terror in this show is the contemptible and deliberate ignorance of the Soviet officials who tried to cover the catastrophe up. Excellent acting from Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard elevate the gravity of the events to dire levels, emphasizing just how infuriating it was for the Soviet Union to try and downplay the disaster in order to preserve their image of global superiority. Technical accuracy contributes even greater to ensuring the audience is treated to an immersive, raw catastrophic experience. As someone who is familiar with Soviet history and culture, I was impressed in their recreation of what came to be the comprehensive exclusion zone, either with CGI or accurate sets and costumes. The show’s creators took extra care to include small but important details, such as the real Chernobyl emergency dispatch, and a perfect recreation of the Pripyat evacuation call, all of which ground the show further into reality.
If this show has any faults, they are not those of the show’s creators. Understandably, certain key info such as the operation of nuclear facilities and regional details need to be explained in order to reach a wider audience. I think most people would not feel this is a detractor, but as someone who is familiar with this region and point in history, I was sometimes taken out of the series’s otherwise immersive screenplay. The show also looses steam as the episodes progress until the last episode. The directors smartly choose to re-focus on individual stories of those effected by the disaster, rather than attempt to make the sequence of events more exciting than they were in real life. In this regard, Chernobyl gradually transitions from disaster show to character drama, which while still interesting, is not as exciting as the bulk of the first three episodes. However, I’d rather the directors choose this approach instead of formulating fake events for the sake of pacing, and ultimately things ramp up in the final episode as the full truth behind the catastrophe is revealed.
The most horrifying part of Chernobyl is the lasting feeling of terror attributed to nuclear power. Our world relies on the nuclear enterprise for sustaining energy in daily life, just as well as global security. Either by accidents , gross inadequacy, or exceptionally poor decision, we are all under a constant blanket of potentially dreadful consequence, and Chernobyl reminds us that the line between peace and total catastrophe is extremely fine. No killer clown or parasitic alien monster will ever exude an equivocal type of fear that Chernobyl portrays. 8.7/10