No ghosts, no demons, no possessions, no jump-scares, however, this may still be the scariest and most horrifying thing you watch this year. An actual masterpiece.
It’s 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear power plant has just exploded, and the race begins to contain this man-made disaster which has the potential to wipe out hundreds, thousands, millions. Based on this event, Chernobyl follows the efforts of individuals who sacrificed, suffered, and did everything in their power to prevent the situation from worsening beyond control.
This is not a horror series, not explicitly, but given the content, imagery, and details of this nuclear catastrophe it’s more successful than most that do fall directly into the genre. Everything in this five-episode run is designed to have you cowering in fear, overcome with emotion, and on the edge of your seat in dire anticipation. It’s an incredible ploy to get you instantly hooked and make you want to power through every horrible disastrous event in one uninterrupted sitting. Everything in this miniseries is designed to put you in the position of one of the residents of Pripyat and give you the feeling of experiencing this first-hand.
It’s all wildly successful in doing so across a number of departments. The imagery alone is bleak, harrowing, and horrifying to the point where most would probably rather not look, but oddly enough, you can’t look away. What makes it all so terrifying is that it’s real, the facts of this event draw you in, and as confronting as the details may be it’s the knowledge that this happened that keeps you coming back for more. The score is largely built of the sounds of grinding metal-on-metal action producing rather unpleasant ear-piercing sounds, but I loved it.
Exposition and the delivery of extensive information can be excruciating to sit through in a lot of cases when it isn’t handled well. Exposition of science-related events can be especially boring to anyone who has no idea what how these processes work. However, despite not knowing a shred of information about nuclear fission and how nuclear reactors work, every line of dialogue dedicated to explaining these processes and the threats involved is presented fantastically. Every detail of what is happening and what could happen is haunting and only enhances the emotional impact of the events that unfold.
This is atmospheric horror at its absolute finest. Everything in here is designed to build a horrific atmosphere that draws you in and paint a near perfect picture of the terror of experiencing such an event. There is almost nothing pleasant, positive, or uplifting to draw from anything that happens in here. This is all intentional to give a recount of events that is as close to factual as possible, and to knock you down emotionally to understand the weight of what is going on.
The story in here is gripping and follows a cast of characters, both good and bad, whose stories and involvements in the disaster are fascinating. The story is told predominantly through the efforts of Valery Legasov (Jared Harris), Boris Scherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), and Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson); a fantastic trio of characters to base the story around. Having these three as the lens you watch the show through creates an emotional highway to get you engaged and have you caring not only about them but everyone affected in any way by the disaster.
It’s a slow series, there’s no doubt about that, but I was so hooked in to the drama and hit by the emotion that none of the slowness affected the enjoyment in any way. It’s very carefully paced to allow you to take in the weight of every key moment, build anticipation, and heighten intensity across every scene. It’s confronting, eye-opening, and all of the drama and intense moments makes the five hours feel like three at most.
The series is led by three incredibly stellar performances from Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, and Emily Watson. The three of them either together or on their own carry each and every scene without even breaking a sweat. Harris specifically has a number of dialogue-driven scenes in here which completely blew me away. He delivers some of the biggest and best lines of the series and executes it all with such raw emotion he almost single-handedly elevates each scene up a few notches. Don’t be surprised if he wins some awards for this performance. Skarsgård and Watson contribute to the emotion a great amount and each of them have their own key scenes in which they shine.
There isn’t a minute of this series that is subpar, it all weaves in and connects tightly to where at the end of the five-episode run there’s a complete story that ties up everything it introduced. It’s a must-watch series for its expert storytelling, amazing performances, and chilling atmospheric horror. If you don’t hate the sound of a geiger counter already… you will after this. The quality here is going to be hard to beat this year as HBO’s Chernobyl is a home run on all fronts.