CHERNOBYL: ABYSS. Catastrophic disaster film
In 2019, thanks to the outstanding series Chernobyl by Craig Mazin and Johan Renck, the topic of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster on April 26, 1986, became incredibly popular and widely discussed. It is therefore difficult not to compare any new production today that touches upon this tragic event with the mentioned HBO television masterpiece. In the case of films or series from Russia, this is even more challenging. During the airing of the miniseries by Mazin and Renck in 2019, the Russians announced that they were preparing a response to HBO’s version, which they believed to be distorted and propagandistic. However, it should be noted that Daniil Kozlovsky’s film is not the boldly promised riposte from the Russian NTV station. Available on Netflix and produced by Non-Stop Production, Chernobyl: Abyss seems to be merely a prologue to that response.
The film tells the story of Alexey Karpushin (played by the director, Daniil Kozlovsky), a firefighter who accidentally reunites with his former love Olga (Oksana Akinshina) after ten years. Soon, we learn that Olga has a ten-year-old son, and all indications point to Alexey being the father. Finding Olga and getting to know Loshka leads Karpushin to leave his job in order to move to Kiev with his girlfriend and son. However, his plans are disrupted by the sudden explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant reactor. The retired firefighter does everything he can to prevent the potential consequences of the accident.
In Daniil Kozlovsky’s film, the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster serves as a tragic backdrop for the story of love and the heroic actions of firefighter Alexey Karpushin, reminiscent of the deeds of Hollywood’s greatest heroes. Watching Chernobyl: Abyss, it’s hard to escape the impression that its creator wanted to transplant the most recognizable motifs of American disaster cinema (and more) onto Russian soil. However, the result of the strategy chosen by the author of Chernobyl: Abyss is rather unsatisfying. Poorly developed characters and a lack of a distinct secondary plot contribute to this state of affairs. Ultimately, we are left with a story built from familiar patterns, a cold and unconvincing love story between two people, and a somewhat dull and emotionally unengaging tale of a man who single-handedly averted the reactor explosion’s consequences, saving his homeland and Europe in the process. In such a situation, even the good performances of Kozlovsky and Akinshina cannot salvage the film.
While the April 1986 disaster seems to be nothing more than a backdrop for Kozlovsky’s narrative, alongside scenes inspired by Stranger Things or Super 8 and explosions reminiscent of Michael Bay’s films, we also have a strange attempt at criticizing some military leaders, whose greatest crime is likely concealing reactor failure facts from the world. If these moments were meant to somehow comment on the ineffectiveness of party representatives’ actions and analyze the issue of the Chernobyl deception, they come across as too muted and unclear.
According to the producer of Chernobyl: Abyss this film was also meant to pay tribute to ordinary people doing extraordinary things for others. This plan is indeed commendable, but when the Chernobyl catastrophe could be equally replaced with any other tragic event (even entirely fictional) in the context of the discussed Netflix film, it’s hard to imagine that the main character’s sacrifice symbolizes the dedication of the liquidators. In fact, the firefighters who survived Chernobyl and watched Kozlovsky’s film pointed this out themselves. Most of them agreed that Chernobyl: Abyss is a missed opportunity to unearth the true heroes of the fateful events of 1986 and 1987, rather disconnected from historical truth.
However, Kozlovsky’s creation has its positive aspects. The greatest advantage of Chernobyl: Abyss lies in its visual and musical components. The film boasts excellent set design and the outstanding camera work of the 26-year-old Ksenia Sereda, who masterfully captures intimate details, compensating for the aforementioned character development flaws with her cinematography. Oleg Karpachev, responsible for the music, knows perfectly well how to enhance the impact of the most intense but overly prolonged scenes in the film through sound.
Chernobyl: Abyss is primarily an impulsive creation. While it contains noteworthy elements, Daniil Kozlovsky couldn’t connect them into a coherent vision. The use of the Chernobyl disaster, made popular in recent years by the renowned HBO series, isn’t a guarantee of worldwide acclaim in itself. Russians should take this into account when producing their final response to Renck and Mazin’s exceptional production.