A review of HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019)

HBO’s “Chernobyl” (2019) is … flawless, as far as I can tell.  I can’t name a single criticism I have of its writing, directing or performances.  It is among the best miniseries I’ve ever seen, and I don’t hesitate to rate it a 10 out of 10.

I can’t comment with any credibility about its historical accuracy, of course.  I know that the character of Ulana Khomyuk (wonderfully played by Emily Watson) was a composite meant to represent a number of scientists responding to the world-changing 1986 nuclear disaster; HBO notes this in its closing notes of the last episode.  But, to an average viewer like myself, the show certainly felt accurate — not once did I pause to remember that I was watching a TV show, and not getting a real-life glimpse into the closing days of the Soviet Union.  There is an immersive authenticity to “Chernobyl” that underscores every second of the horrors it depicts.

The entire five-episode program is an exercise in balance.  Screenwriter Craig Mazin deftly portrays terrifying events (including the effects of radiation exposure on average people nearby) without sensationalizing them.

The show does a masterful job of explaining the necessary technical information without overwhelming the viewer.  I typically have some trouble following material like this, and I understood most of it.  (The relationship between Jared Harris’ character and Stellan Skarsgard’s character helps quite a bit.  The former is a leading nuclear scientist who explains things in layman’s terms for the latter, who is a high-ranking Soviet official supervising the disaster response.)

And the script is ultimately quite moving, without once approaching the threshold of melodrama.  The character interaction and dialogue is a lot more restrained than you might expect for this subject matter.  But I was surprised at the sense of sympathy for the Russian people that this engendered for me, and at the dismay I felt for the visceral  technological horrors they faced.  (The show admirably highlights how average Russians were very much like Americans in 1986, albeit under an oppressive government.  It was ironic how some characters ominously referred to “The West,” with the same apprehension as people here in the 1980’s referred to “the Russians.”)

It’s a nuanced script too.  By the times the miniseries concludes, the viewer comes to understand that the putative “bad guys” are scapegoats who are not fully and solely responsible for the disaster.  (And the character arc for Skarsgard’s bureaucrat is a compelling redemption.)  More troubling, though, is that some of the “good guys” we are rooting for are also not completely inculpable.

For me, though, Chernobyl succeeded mostly because of Harris and Skarsgard.  They were both phenomenally good — perfect, in fact.  They are accomplished actors who have the subtlety and restraint to play men from a stoical culture who must nonetheless have human reactions to tragedy.

I obviously recommend this.

 

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I introduced a pal last night to John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982).

And she was predictably impressed.  Here are a few observations that came up for me, about the categorically rewatchable sci-fi/horror movie that keeps on giving.  (Yeah, I know I sound overly preoccupied with this movie, and that’s weird, but I’m just really into movies.  And John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is the same kind of classic for monster movie fans as “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story” is for people who like Christmas movies.)  [THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS.]

1) It was fun watching “The Thing” with someone who was seeing it for the first time.  Not only did I have to stifle a chuckle at her cry of “That poor dog!” during the opening credits, but I also watched while she guessed (incorrectly, as most of us did) at which characters had been assimilated by the shape-shifting monster as the story progressed.  (I noticed something ironic last night that I couldn’t mention.  When MacReady delivers his short “I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me” speech, all of the men he’s addressing are also still human … Unless I’m mistaken, Norris and Palmer are elsewhere.

Which brings me to what at first occurred to me as a … remotely possible plot hole in this otherwise perfect masterpiece.  If The Thing truly wants to escape Antarctica and prey upon the rest of the world, it doesn’t need to assimilate (or “Thingify,” as I like to think) everyone in the camp.  It only needs to overtake a single human.  (This would be the silhouetted figure that the dog first approaches; my money’s on Norris.)  Think about it … nobody stationed at Outpost 31 remains at the research station indefinitely.  They’d cycle out at the end of a shift of … six months?  Eight months?  Longer?  (And what about vacations and holidays?)  Sooner or later, they’d fly home.  And, having perfectly replicated a human’s anatomy, The Thing need only sustain itself until that departure by eating the same food the other humans were eating.  Then, as soon as it arrived at any other, warmer location on earth, it could attack life in its abundance.

But this morning I realized that my analysis here is faulty.  First, the humans were already getting wise to The Thing and its means of procreation — thanks to a pre-diabeetus Wilford Brimley wisely intoning, “That ain’t dog.”  Maybe The Thing was smart enough to realize the humans could effectively quarantine it.  Second, I am assuming in my criticism that “The Thing” is acting as a single entity.  Yet it shouldn’t act that way at all; this is the entire point of MacReady’s “blood test.”  While one incarnation of The Thing is safely munching on canned goods disguised as a human, a separate incarnation was sitting in storage, exposed — presumably only until the humans finally realized it needed to be destroyed somehow.  That iteration of The Thing needed to attack and duplicate Redding if it wanted to save itself.

2)  The Thing actually shouldn’t need to reach civilization in order to begin attacking all life on earth; it only needs to reach the Antarctic coast. If it enters the water and begins assimilating sea life (and why shouldn’t it be able to?), then it’s game over.  I said last night that “a fish can travel wherever it wants,” which my friend found pretty funny, but it’s true.  A Thingified fish (or its fish-Thing progeny) could arrive at any continental coastline.

3)  If The Thing replicates a human perfectly on a cellular level, then … might it be reluctant to kill anyone else, because it would basically be a human?  (Obviously, the film’s plot-driving antagonist has no such reluctance, but … still, think about it.)  If it perfectly replicates a human brain, right down to its cellular structures and chemistry, then wouldn’t it have a conscience and experience empathy?  My friend pointed out the reductionist nature of my question, though — it assumes that conscience and empathy can have only physical origins.

4)  The movie’s characters (and most viewers) assume that The Thing is “a lifeform” or an organism.  Is it, or is it simply “live” tissue?  Somebody on the Internet Movie Database message board pointed out long ago that it’s “just cells,” and that’s … literally true; the film even shows this via crude 80’s-era computer graphic.  Is it an “organism” if it is simply tissue that replicates?  Or is it no more a “lifeform” than a cancer, or tissue grown in a lab?

5) I honestly opine that the film is perfect, or very nearly so.  It is the paragon of sci-fi/horror movies.  And I’d put it on par with other films that I hold virtually perfect, like “To Have and Have Not” (1944), “Alien” (1979), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Aliens” (1986), “The Accidental Tourist” (1988), “Alien 3” (1992) and “Vanilla Sky” (2001).

6)  My friend reaaaally likes Kurt Russell’s hair in this film.

Okay, enough.  I’m sorry about this.  Hey, at least I’m not obsessing over comics tonight.

 

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George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968)

So I raised a few eyebrows a while back when I praised the 2004 colorized version of the late George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” (1968).  A couple of horror fans gave me flack for it — I hope people realize that I was talking about the last (and best) colorization, adapted by Legend Films.  (There were several prior color versions, and the 1986 attempt by Hal Roach Studios was broadly and justifiably condemned.)

I also hope that people realize that my preferred version will always be Romero’s black-and-white original.  And it just so happens that I found an unusually good copy of it online, over at the Timeless Classic Movie Youtube channel.  (There are actually some really clean copies of a few great classics there, including 1964’s “The Last Man on Earth”).

 

Last night I watched a colorized version of “Night of the Living Dead.”

There are actually several colorized versions of George A. Romero’s 1968 classic floating around out there — the one I watched was the quite decent 2004 revision by Legend Films.  (I believe it’s the truly crude 1986 Hal Roach colorized version that is so widely reviled by fans — and with good reason.  Those green-skinned zombies looked awful in that one clip I watched.)

I had a blast with the Legend Films outing.  I cheerfully recommend it.  The colorization isn’t perfect, and it’s a little strange seeing the start of the zombie apocalypse rendered in occasionally pastel hues.  But this was a fun way to revisit a beloved film I’ve seen so often before, but only in black and white.  You can also finally fully appreciate how beautiful Judith O’Dea was.  (And, in my opinion, she and Duane Jones were damned terrific in this movie.)

Check out the clip below.