From the screenwriter of such illustrious and transcendent masterpieces of cinema as The Hangover II and III and Scary Movie 3 and 4 comes the story of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. He did direct the mildly amusing superhero send-up The Specials, but that was written by none other than a young James Gunn. The directing duties for Chernobyl fell to Johan Renck, who is mostly known for music videos and prestige television like Breaking Bad, Bloodline, The Walking Dead and, perhaps most interestingly, the last two music videos that David Bowie did before he passed away on the 10th of January 2016.
Chernobyl has gained an extraordinary amount of praise from both audiences and critics—and it’s utterly unearned for such a bone-crushingly boring show about an extraordinary and terrifying disaster. It’s currently the highest rated TV show of all time on IMDb, and people were fawning over its “realism” etc. The fact that a show like this gets all this acclaim while great shows like Strange Angel, which is also based on a true story but is struggling to find an audience, is infuriating.
It’s a long grind of terribly lit sequences of bureaucrats and workers trying to curtail a disaster, which luckily only affected somewhere in the region of tens of thousands of people instead of the very possible millions of potential victims, although the final number isn’t known. Jared Harris, the de facto lead of the show, plays Valery Legasov, who was the commissioner of the investigation into what happened. Legasov would go on to commit suicide, but his suicide opens the show so that’s not a spoiler. Harris’s performance is the best thing about the show, and even then it’s still overwrought. Stellan Skarsgård is in borderline-parody mode as the Council of Ministers’ deputy chairman, and Emily Watson plays a ridiculous composite character representing the numerous scientists brought in to find a solution to the disaster.
The mini-series’ depiction of Soviet bureaucracy is painted in such broad strokes that it’s almost Death of Stalin-levels of subtly. It doesn’t go deeper into the travesty than basically “Communist Russia was really bad and it caused this”—but it was a bit more complicated than that. The depictions of the 1986 Soviet Union are laughable, it’s depicted like it’s the Stalin era, with scenes of people being literally threatened at gunpoint… it wasn’t the best place to live, but it wasn’t quite that oppressive.
One of the biggest criticisms of Chernobyl, which has received almost universal acclaim, is that the actors speak in their natural accents, which are mostly British. It’s nit-picky as best, and it is the least of the show’s worries: from its unbearably bland, muted visual palette to it having no sense of time and place, because it’s pretty obviously shot in some nameless Eastern European country and not Russia or the Ukraine. In fact. it was shot in Lithuania, and it looks like now without enough period detail to make it seem like ’86. It was also shot digitally, which just makes it look an ordinary TV show. It would have made more aesthetic sense to shoot it on high-grain super 16. Not for one second do you get any sense of danger during the show, and this is about Chernobyl after all!
It’s also, finally, just a bore, and for five hours of screen time you could watch so many better shows or films, and probably a couple good documentaries on the subject instead of this piss-poor dramatisation. The DVD contains just a stills gallery but there is a Blu-Ray later in the month.