Roush Review: HBO's 'Chernobyl' a Real-Life Horror Movie

Matt Roush
Review HBO

Chernobyl

Like a real-life disaster epic churning with the relentlessness of a horror movie, the grueling HBO docudrama Chernobyl would be terrifying if it were merely science fiction. The fact that it really happened — and for all of its devastation, could have been worse — makes this five-part slog of unrelieved misery even more chilling. It's hard to watch — but you already knew that.

"There was nothing sane about Chernobyl," says nuclear physicist Valery Legasov (an excellent Jared Harris) in the fatalistic prologue, set two years after the man-made catastrophe. Just how insane the situation was becomes immediately clear when the scene quickly shifts back to April 26, 1986, depicting the grisly calamity of the nuclear-plant accident in Ukraine.

'Chernobyl's Jared Harris & Emily Watson Share Their Own Memories From the Disaster

'Chernobyl's Jared Harris & Emily Watson Share Their Own Memories From the Disaster

The five-part limited series depicts the '80s nuclear explosion.

The first chapters plunge right into the minute-by-minute devastation — only later will Chernobyl pull back to reveal just how a mere safety test was so notoriously botched — and we watch (possibly through our fingers) as plant workers succumb immediately to the deadly radiation. They're the lucky ones.

Chernobyl never flinches from grim reality, with first responders absorbing fatal doses as they attack the ominously glowing site, while neighboring citizens gather in the dark to watch the blaze from afar, unaware of the acid rain descending upon them — and their children. Almost as terrifying, but certainly as disturbing, is the denial of those in charge of the plant to acknowledge the enormity of the disaster, even when they're informed of the unimaginable: that the reactor has exploded, with a raging fire "giving off twice the radiation of the bomb in Hiroshima," warns Legasov once he's called to the scene to assess the damage and limit the fallout.

Stellan Skarsgård, Jared Harris (Liam Daniel/HBO)

Legasov is yoked to a representative of the Soviet state, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgård), whose job is to contain the situation while promoting the party line for as long as he can that human error, not the Soviet methodology, was to blame. Standing up to the government with unpleasant truths is almost as certain a death sentence as being exposed to the poison radiating from Chernobyl. When the dire situation calls for more sacrifice, sending divers and miners to uncertain fates in desperate attempts to avert further disaster, it's Scherbina who extols the Russian call to duty: "Every generation must know its own suffering."

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The series conforms to disaster-movie protocol by following several soul-crushing personal subplots, including the panicked wife of one of the stricken firefighters and, in a later episode, a young man recruited to Animal Control to rid the region of abandoned and contaminated pets. But as the government prepares a show trial to punish scapegoats, it falls to scientists like Legasov and fellow physicist Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson in a composite role) to emerge as heroes, risking everything to expose the facts amid a culture of secrecy that's almost as toxic as the radioactive ruins of Chernobyl.

Chernobyl, Series Premiere, Monday, May 6, 9/8c, HBO