Updated: Feb 13, 2021
4K ULTRA HD REVIEW / HDR FRAME SHOTS
(1&2) Pripyat firefighters were the first responders at the Chernobyl nuclear site and within hours were seeking medical care for radiation exposure.
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4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, and Digital copy; 2019; TV-MA for language, intense images, and nudity; Streaming via HBO Max, Amazon Prime Video; Apple, FandangoNOW, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: The five-part “Inside the Episode”
THE RIVETING and haunting five-part docudrama is one of HBO’s best – right up there with “Band of Brothers,” “Catherine the Great” and “From the Earth to the Moon.” “Chernobyl” deals with the events surrounding the April 26, 1986 explosion of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Northern Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union. A blanket of radioactive material sprayed across Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, and sections of Europe.
The series is from creator/writer/executive producer Craig Mazin (“The Hangover Part II”), who spent years researching the event. It unfolds through the eyes of nuclear scientist Valery Legasov, a real-life character, and wonderfully played by British actor Jared Harris (“The Crown”). He’s appointed to the Soviet committee to oversee the cleanup and speaks out about the disaster on the world stage, but is eventually silenced and ordered to cut all ties.
Legasov was paired with longtime Communist Party member, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina, played by Stellan Skarsgård (“The Avengers”). Nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk is played by Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves”), a fictional composite character who interviews a number of the plant workers before their horrific deaths, to piece together the disastrous puzzle.
Episode One - “1:23:45”
(1) Nuclear scientist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) records his unfiltered viewpoint of the Chernobyl explosion. (2) Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) and her husband firefighter Vasily (Adam Nagaitis) heard the explosion and view the accident from their apartment. (3&4) Dust from the ceiling and light fixtures fall inside the Chernobyl control room, while workers are shocked.
(1&2) Vasily Ignatenko and other Pripyat firefighters put water onto the Chernobyl fire, not realizing they are getting exposed to deadly amounts of radiation. (3) Nuclear engineer Alexandr Akimov (Sam Troughton) was the supervisor of the night shift when the explosion happened at 1:23:45 a.m. on April 26, 1986. (4&5) Two Chernobyl workers examine building Number 4. (6) Families watch the fire from a nearby railroad bridge, and radiation fallout falls from the sky. It has been reported none of the families survived.
(1) Chernobyl plant Director Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O’Neill) addresses the local Executive Committee. (2) At daybreak, a nuclear engineer discovers the RBMK reactor core had exploded. (3) Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter) collapses when he sees the accident site.
There are plenty of heroes who sacrifice their lives to save millions of Soviets and Europeans. Sixty-plus coal miners were recruited to dig a tunnel to keep the nuclear waste from contaminating the groundwater. Hundreds of young men, who each received 800 rubles, took part in 90-second shifts to remove deadly chunks of radioactive graphite from the reactor’s roof. “It’s fair to say that piece of the roof is the most dangerous place on Earth,” says Shcherbina during Episode Four.
Three divers went beneath the plant to drain water from the base to avert a second explosion and a meltdown that would have poisoned the continent of Europe and made it uninhabitable for hundreds of thousands of years. And don’t forget the healthcare workers who tended to the contaminated patients. It’s reported that 750,000 people helped clean up this impossibly contaminated area, which will continue to be off-limits for the next 20,000 years. The World Health Organization estimates 9,000 people died from the exposure, while some reports put the number closer to 60,000.
The Soviets put the official death toll at 31.
The HBO & British Sky series ended up winning 10 Emmy Awards in 2019, including for Outstanding Limited Series, Directing, Writing, Cinematography, Production Design, Music, Sound Editing and Visual Effects.
Episode 2 - “Please Remain Calm”
(1) 400 kilometers to the north in Minsk, a radiation alarm goes off when Dmitri (Matthew Needham) opens the window at the Belarusian Institute for Nuclear Energy. (2) Fictional composite character Ulna Khomyuk (Emily Watson) detected radiation of eight roentgen at her Minsk lab. She calls the Chernobyl plant and gets no answer. (3) Legasov is called to speak at the emergency Soviet Committee meeting in Moscow. (4&5) Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina, (Stellan Skarsgård) listens as General Secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev (David Dencik) speaks during the meeting.
(1) Lyudmilla Ignatenko searches for her husband at the Pripyat hospital and discovers he’s been transported to Moscow. (2-4) Gorbachev orders Shcherbina and Legasov to the Chernobyl site and to oversee the cleanup, which included airdrops of sand and boron to put out the fire. (5) Citizens are ordered from their Pripyat apartments.
(1&2) Ulna Khomyuk drives toward the Chernobyl site and gets stopped at a checkpoint and escorted to meet Shcherbina and Legasov. She becomes an expert voice at the Committee Meeting in Moscow and reveals a possible second explosion. It would equal between two-four megatons and destroy everything within a 30-kilometer radius. (3) Three men volunteer to release water from tanks under the site, to defuse the second explosion.
The two 4K discs include the five-part “Inside the Episode” featurettes where Mazin says, “The Soviets, the people of Ukraine, the Russians, and Belarus threw themselves at this task in a way that is shocking and beautiful, and also terrifying and heartbreaking.” One of the volunteers was Pavel, played by Irish actor Barry Keoghan, who’s been assigned to kill exposed pet animals, left behind after the evacuation. “He represents all these innocent men who came into the grinder and then got spat out on the other side,” says Swedish director Johan Renck (“Breaking Bad”). “It’s very similar to war… being dehumanized.”
Mazin details how nuclear power and weapons were a huge aspect of Soviet pride. “This was among their most protected secret industries,” says Mazin. “They needed to admit to the world not only that this had happened, but that they hadn’t told anybody until they got caught.”
You’ll discover how the accident started with a safety test, but in reality, it was much more. The idealistic Khomyuk tries to convince Legasov to simply tell the world the truth and force the Central Committee to take action. For Legasov she’s like the Horatio character in Hamlet, says Harris. “She’s his conscience.” While Shcherbina is much more reserved: “Tell whatever truth is necessary. And we can make a deal with the KGB.”
And the discs include five short additional featurettes:
“Behind-the-Curtain,” in which Renck reveals his vision for the divers’ scene. “For me, it was always about the visceral feel of being with these three divers in this pitch-darkness, not really seeing anything, but what’s being lit by the flashlights,” says the director.”
“Script to Screen: The Divers” – You get an excerpt from the diving scene.
“They step into the darkness…
They head downstairs.
No choice it’s the only way.
Renck cuts in and says, “The orientation was difficult. For me, it was always about authenticity... It was a very difficult thing to shoot.”
257 Int. The Ducts – Day 4, 12:45
Light – ripples on the surface of WATER.
The pipes are crossing over each other.
The men stop.
The water rises, the Dosimeter rises and then…
Ananenko’s torch goes dead.
And we see nothing now.
No walls. No floor.
Just the sound of three men lost in the rising water –
“Pivotal Moment: The Trial” - Mazin says the trial was a bit of sleight of hand. “I wanted to put our heroes in it because they were the avenue through which we had come to understand the event, and the fact is that Legasov, in many other venues, had choices to confront the system, and ultimately did.”
The challenge was showing how trials are different in Europe. “In the U.S. you're trying to sell an idea to 12 laymen, says Renck. “In Europe, you’re always facing a panel of experts, so there’s no smoke and mirrors.”
“What is Chernobyl?” – The cast and crew give a brief description of the deadly event. “What baffled me was how little I knew about what actually happened and the magnitude of the whole thing,” says Renck.
“Meet the Key Players” – Broken into three parts. Professor Valery Legasov, “was just the idiot who answered the phone that day,” says Harris. “He’s trying to extinguish an exposed RBMK reactor on a meltdown.”
Boris Shcherbina: The Apparatchik, “He is very well aware that people die, but the system survives,” says Skarsgård. “He is a pragmatic man and a man of reality.”
Ulana Khomyuk: The Scientist, “Nobody would listen to her because she’s a woman,” says Watson. “She really does represent these scientists who put their own lives and freedom at risk,” says Mazin.
Episode 3 - “Open Wide, O Earth”
(1) The firefighters seem to be recovering at the Moscow state-run hospital, but it was short-lived. (2&3) Coal miners from Tula, Russia were called up to excavate a tunnel directly underneath the core of Reactor Number 4. (4) Khomyuk starts interviewing survivors to piece together the disastrous puzzle. (5) Temperatures inside the tunnel were so hot, the coal miners stripped off their clothes. Cooling fans were not allowed because of the radiation dust.
(1) Khomyuk is arrested by the KGB while interviewing survivors and Legasov negotiates her release. (2) Lyudmilla Ignatenko and other family members attend the funeral of their husbands, fathers, and brothers. The men were buried in zinc sealed coffins and a concrete shield, due to fears of radioactive leaks.
From the get-go, you’ll notice a major uptick in resolution compared to the original HBO broadcast and last year’s Blu-ray release. The original digital imagery for all five episodes was captured on 3.2K Arri Alexa Mini digital cameras (2.00:1 aspect ratio), but HBO took the resolution up a notch for true 4K mastering and rendering. That’s truly a commitment to the highest standards. From the finest costume details and facial textures, plus with wide shots the clarity is first-rate. It’s most apparent during the daylight scenes, but for the night and interior moments, you see the detail that was missed before.
The HDR grading includes the standard HDR10 and Dolby Vision, which produces shadows that are darker and fuller at the same time. Plus the color toning is more natural – especially with the facial colors, while the abundance of earth tones, greens, browns, and grays dominate the cityscapes and environment.
The 4K and Blu-ray both feature the six-channel DTS-HD audio format, with the dialogue-driven storyline, that’s front and centered. Overhead helicopters and environmental sounds are sprinkled within your rear speakers, while there’s plenty of bass response from Icelandic composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s chilling score, on which she recorded field sounds from an actual power plant in Lithuania. The Chernobyl composition won her an Emmy, plus she won an Academy Award last February for the “Joker” score.
Great onscreen performances and true-to-life suspense make this an excellent viewing for late teens and older looking for a history lesson. And, no doubt the 4K upgrade is well worth it.
— Bill Kelley III, High-Def Watch producer
Episode Four - “The Happiness of all Mankind”
(1) Center, Pavel (Barry Keoghan) was one of the liquidators called up by the Soviet Government to help with the cleanup. He’s assigned to kill exposed pet animals, left behind after the evacuation. (2-4) Hundreds of young men took part in 90-second shifts to remove deadly chunks of radioactive graphite from the reactor’s roof. Afterward, they were congratulated and each given $800 rubles. (5) Lyudmilla Ignatenko gave birth to a daughter, who died after four hours from congenital heart malformations and cirrhosis of the liver (both link to the radiation exposure). Doctors told her she could never have children, but some years later she gave birth to a boy, and he’s now in his 20s.
Episode Five - “Vichnaya Pamyat”
(1) During the final episode a number of flashbacks are shown, including this one from April 25 the day before the explosion. (2) Legasov prepares his thoughts before the trial against Plant Director Viktor P. Bryukhanov, Chief Engineer Nikolai M. Fomin, and his Duty-Chief Anatoly S. Dyatlov. All three were sentenced to 10-years in a labor camp. (3-5) Shcherbina and Khomyuk detail how the explosion happened. (6&7) Night supervisor Alexandr Akimov helps Leonid Toptunov (Robert Emms) with starting the rundown test, and in less than an hour, the reactor explodes.
(1&2) After the three-week trial, Legasov is ordered by the KGB chief to never speak about Chernobyl or meet with Shcherbina or Khomyuk again.