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'Chernobyl' Brings the Horror of the Nuclear Disaster to Life

HBO’s new miniseries is an exploration of the horrors of nuclear energy and bureaucratic incompetence.

by Matthew Gault
May 8 2019, 2:26pm

Screengrab via HBO

From a distance, it’s beautiful. An unearthly shaft of blue light shoots from the core of the V.I. Lenin Nuclear Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine and into the heavens. People from the surrounding neighborhoods, awakened by the sound and shake of an explosion, leave their homes and gather to watch the glow. As radioactive ash falls on the crowds like snow, they watch the inferno and talk about what might have gone wrong at the local nuclear power plant.

This is just one of the many harrowing scenes from Chernobyl, a new miniseries airing on HBO. The five hour long show tackles one of the greatest nuclear disasters to ever occur on the planet—the explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986. It was a disaster so horrifying and controversial, experts are still arguing over how many people it killed with estimates ranging from 4,000 to 985,000.

Chernobyl is a horror story, one that borrows the tropes and themes of horror fiction to tell the story of a nuclear nightmare compounded by human arrogance and bureaucratic lies. Horror stories work because they tap into real and prescient fears of the audience, and nuclear power plants are a reality for billions of people. More than 400 plants churn out power and 60 of them are in the United States. Experts say that they’re safer, that another Chernobyl can’t happen. But we worry and we wait.

Chernobyl uses the visual language of a horror film because no other visual language fits. The explosion was a disaster, but Chernobyl is not a natural disaster story because natural disaster stories have plots that move towards triumph. The Rock can escape the burning building in Skyscraper, Ben Affleck will survive Armageddon, and Marion Cotillard will find a cure for the Contagion. The community, led by a charismatic hero, can rally and survive. There are no triumphs here. Only bad people denying their senses as the flesh melts from their bones.

Chernobyl’s protagonist—Jared Harris playing Valery Legasov, a nuclear expert who helped respond to the disaster—commits suicide in the first five minutes of the first episode. Legasov will be the smartest person in the room, the only one willing to speak truth to power, but in the Soviet Union in 1986, this won’t matter. Chernobyl will still kill people, slowly and painfully.

Chernobyl jumps from multiple perspectives as the events unfold. It focuses on the first responders, the bureaucrats, and the people of Pripyat to tell its story. Legasov is the framing device and the audience’s rational actor. The cast is mostly British, playing into the odd Western TV trope where English accents stand in for all foreign accents. But the actors, from Harris to Paul Ritter are all excellent, and none affect a faux-Russian lilt.

Chernobyl was a disaster so terrible and so rife with misinformation that the only story we can tell is one of pure horror.

After Legasov’s suicide on the second anniversary of the explosion, Chernobyl flashes back to the moment. There’s a rumble and a flash from the power plant. The engineers inside are stunned, but Anatoly Dyatlov—the chief engineer on duty—refuses to believe what is apparent—that the core of the power plant exploded. “You’re mistaken,” he tells a frightened engineer. “Our reactor cores don’t explode.”

The horror of Chernobyl is not just the horror of nuclear radiation, but also the horror of unchecked bureaucracy. As the government functionaries gather to decide how to handle a disaster they don’t yet realize will ruin Pripyat for generations, an aging and unnamed bureaucrat stands as if he’s going to deliver a sermon. “We seal off the city,” he says, dooming thousands. “No one leaves. We cut the phone lines. Contain the spread of misinformation. That is how we keep the people from undermining the fruits of their own labor.”

The first firefighters come when called. They’ve been told that they only have to put out a fire on the roof of the power plant. As they pour water into the raging inferno, the camera pulls back and the firefighters suffuse in a yellow sickly glow. One man who picked up a hunk of graphite with gloved hands, wails as the flesh boils from his hands. The dark colors, the slow reaction shots of body horror, and the sickly lighting are all pulled from the tricks horror films use to unsettle the audience.

“What is the cost of lies,” Legasov asks the audience before his suicide in Chernobyl’s opening moments. “It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that, if we hear enough lies, we no longer recognize the truth at all. What can we do then? What else is left but to abandon even the hope of truth and to content ourselves instead with stories.”

Chernobyl was a disaster so terrible and so rife with misinformation that the only story we can tell is one of pure horror. It's a story that matters now because nuclear power plants are still here and more might be coming. Climate change will have dire consequences for the way we live and nuclear power plants, with their low-carbon cost, represent an efficient and possibly less environmentally disastrous source of energy. But nuclear power comes with its own horrors. Mismanaged, as it was in Chernobyl, it kills with a ferocious swiftness. Radiation is an invisible killer, one that can melt the body from the inside out. A horror we might have to harness if we want to avoid a climate disaster.

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Television