Release Date(s)2019 (December 1, 2020)
Studio(s)Sky UK/Sister Pictures/Mighty Mint/Word Games/HBO (HBO Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: D
“What is the cost of lies? It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth. The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth at all.”
In the early-morning hours of April 26, 1986, the Number 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic exploded during a routine test, exposing the still fissioning core to the open air, releasing an incredible amount of ionizing radiation into the surrounding environment, and presenting the risk of a catastrophic meltdown that would have contaminated the water table across much of the continent. All of this was thought by Russian officials to be impossible, so much so that many refused to believe the evidence of their own eyes as it was happening. The Soviet state first attempted to cover up the fact that the accident had occurred, until radiation from the incident was detected in Europe, and Western satellites photographed the damaged reactor site. Faced with the need to come clean to the world, the Soviet government, led by Mikhail Gorbachev, did the only thing it could—it threw every resource at hand at the problem, including the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers. The full death toll today is unknown, but estimates range from 4,000 fatalities to as many as 16,000. And to this day, the region remains contaminated and uninhabitable.
HBO’s five-episode historical drama tells the story of these events, and their aftermath, in a way that is broadly accurate, but also fictionalized so as to simplify the byzantine socio-political machinations of the Soviet state for Western audiences. The series stars Jared Harris (Mad Men) as Valery Legasov, the deputy director of the Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy, who is the first scientist to take the call when things go wrong. Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting) co-stars as Boris Shcherbina, a deputy chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers who is tasked by the state with handling the problem. Both are real historical figures. The series’ third star is Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) who plays the physicist Ulana Khomyuk, a fictional character created to represent the hundreds of real-life scientists called in to address the crisis. Legasov’s challenge is to figure out how to address a calamity that’s never before occurred on the surface of the Earth and to convince Shcherbina, the only man who understands how to pull the levers of Soviet power, of the gravity of the situation. Meanwhile, Khomyuk serves as their conscience; she’s determined to not only help solve the problem, but to uncover the truth and expose it, so such an accident can never happen again—even at the cost of their own lives. Written and produced by Craig Mazin (The Specials, Scary Movie 3 & 4, and The Hangover II & III) and directed by Johan Renck (known for his TV work on The Walking Dead, Vikings, and Breaking Bad), Chernobyl received widespread critical acclaim and won numerous awards, including the Emmy for Outstanding Limited Series, the Golden Globe for Best Limited Series, the BAFTA for Best Mini-Series, and even a Peabody.
Chernobyl was captured digitally in the ARRIRAW codec (at 3.2K) using Arri Alexa cameras and Cooke lenses. It was finished as a 4K Digital Intermediate at the 2.00:1 aspect ratio for presentation on HBO. For its release on Ultra HD, the series has been given an added color grade for high dynamic range (both Dolby Vision and HDR10 are available). The resulting image is impressive as hell, but not necessarily for its resolution improvements over the HD broadcast and Blu-ray presentations—though there is a modest improvement, especially apparent in the textures of skin, textiles, and brickwork. Where this image really shines is in its HDR grade, which adds wonderful subtleties to the color. The day to day experience of life in the Soviet Union in the 1980s was anything but colorful, with mostly Earth-toned fabrics dominating the fashions of the day and a ubiquitous “institutional green-gray” palette common in interior paint. In fact, the entire look of the series’ environments, from clothing and household decorations to the Brutalist architecture of the state, has an accurately cold and oppressive look. So while this is by no means a flashy 4K image, the more you watch it the more you’ll come to appreciate its nuances. Much of the first episode takes place at night, in the dark, though, so those of you with Dolby Vision compatible displays will be glad you have them.
The primary sound option is offered here in English (with occasional Russian—English subs appear from time to time as needed) in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio format. This is an almost entirely dialogue-driven soundtrack, but the clarity of that dialogue is excellent. The soundstage is modestly wide, but the surrounds are used lightly yet effectively to create a lovely sense of space. The tone is full sounding, with adequate low end, and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir sparse and ethereal score—which makes use of actual nuclear plant sound recordings—is presented with lovely fidelity. Additional audio options include 5.1 DTS in French, Castilian Spanish, and Latin Spanish. Optional subtitles are provided in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
HBO’s 4K release is a 4-disc set that includes all five of the series’ episodes on both UHD and Blu-ray (2 discs each). The discs also include the following special features (all in HD):
- Inside the Episode: 1:23:45 (2:31)
- Inside the Episode: Please Remain Calm (2:47)
- Inside the Episode: Open Wide, O Earth (2:01)
- Inside the Episode: The Happiness of All Mankind (3:26)
- Inside the Episode: Vichnaya Pamyat (3:30)
- What Is Chernobyl? (1:38)
- Meet the Key Players – Jared Harris as Valery Legasov: The Professor (1:46)
- Meet the Key Players – Stellan Skarsgård as Boris Shcherbina: The Apparatchik (1:56)
- Meet the Key Players – Emily Watson as Ulana Khomyuk: The Scientist (1:56)
- Behind the Curtain: Director Johan Renck (1:37)
- Script to Screen: The Divers (1:23)
- Pivotal Moment: The Trial (2:12)
This amounts to about 30 minutes of material in all, and none of it is particularly comprehensive. But it does give you a quick Cliff’s Notes-style guide to the characters and their plight, which might be helpful to ground casual audience members. I’d certainly have wished for audio commentaries and perhaps a documentary on the real historical events to help put things in better context, but such is not the case here. You do at least get a Digital Copy code on a paper insert.
Chernobyl is a challenging, oppressive, and at times downright horrifying dramatic experience, but it’s an extraordinary one as well. There’s a scene in one episode where workers in heavy radiation suits are attempting to navigate the bowels of the power plant beneath the reactor—amid waist-deep floodwater and confusing ductwork—that’s lit only by the lamps of their flashlights. They have only minutes to accomplish their task before receiving a fatal dose of radiation… and their lights begin to fail because of that same radiation. The scene is as tense as anything you’ll see onscreen, whether big or small. I’d certainly recommend finding the 4K on sale, given the lack of substantial extras, but the series is definitely recommended.
- Bill Hunt