Review: The Powerful CHERNOBYL Embraces Subtlety Over Spectacle

4.5 out of 5 stars

Writer Craig Mazin’s Chernobyl is something of a subtle masterpiece. This five-part series about one of mankind’s greatest disasters could have gone down the tried and tested disaster movie road, throwing well worn tropes at viewers as a way of story-telling shorthand. However, this Sky Atlantic/HBO produced series swerves away from that easy option, instead delivering a powerful and thought-provoking tale which embraces characterisation. 

Charting the events immediately before and after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power-plant disaster, the Johan Renck directed series looks at key characters who played pivotal roles in the clean-up operation. Stellan Skarsgård, Jared Harris and Emily Watson lead the cast (alongside around 87% of the supporting actors from Game Of Thrones) , delivering low-key but fascinating performances that offer up an emotional anchor to something which is incredibly difficult to fathom. Eschewing flashy visuals Renck’s direction is filled with a coolness, ditching brash sound-effects for an eerie quietness which permeates throughout, something which makes the onscreen action even more unsettling. It plays out like something from a post apocalyptic thriller of a zombie movie, but the shocking thing is that not only is the threat very real – but that this actually happened. 

Each episode moves the core story forward (no pun intended), of how the authorities try to get the radiation under-control, while also focusing on the disparate and desperate attempts of the regular people who are tasked with trying to carry out these solutions. It’s a clever way of delivering a story with so many elements and it’s brave of Mazin to keep (the majority of) these stories relegated to singular episodes.  

While it’s fascinating that Johan Renck comes from the fast-cut world of music videos, it’s even more surprising that writer Craig Mazin’s filmography includes such comedic clangers as Scary Movies 3 and 4, alongside Hangovers 2 and 3 (amongst other cinematic atrocities). If there’s a road to creative redemption then Mazin has walked it with this spectacularly well-honed and controlled piece of writing. 

As a piece of ‘entertainment’ Chernobyl isn’t easy going, however this well defined and complex tale is definitely worth your time. It crafts a detailed depiction of the Chernobyl disaster, while also delivering stellar performances with its able cast. The series shows humanity at its bravest and most selfless, while also showing how ego and foolishness led to one of the darkest and dangerous events in human history – events which still affect the world 35 years on.

Chernobyl will be available digitally to download from 4 July 2019, then as a two disc set on DVD 15 July 2019 and on Blu-ray 29 July 2019.