Six Damn Fine Degrees #7: Cinematic Chernobyl

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness.

The drive from Kyiv to the exclusion zone around Chernobyl is not long. The small coach my friends and I had hired back in 2018 took us there in just over two hours. “You can watch this to pass the time,” the driver said. “Some of it was shot in the exclusion zone so you’ll get an idea as to what to expect.” And so it was that I got to see the 1991 TV movie Chernobyl: The Final Warning.

This production claims to be a realistic dramatization of a true story, of how American doctor Robert Gale went behind the Iron Curtain and helped saved many lives affected by the original Chernobyl disaster in 1986.

I’ve no idea how accurate the overall story is, although I’m inclined to think that the reality was likely less pompously melodramatic. It’s possible Robert Gale was indeed inclined to not play things by the book when so many lives were at stake, and used the strength of his moral conviction to shame those Communist pen-pushers in Grad Hall into taking action. And maybe he did strut around the place just as Jon Voight does. An earnest man stuck with a single facial expression that sometimes suggests exasperation with the authorities. At other times that simply that he’s constipated.

It wasn’t really the best preparation for the experience of visiting Chernobyl. The dated production values, cliche-ridden script combined with the coach’s own VHS broadcasting system, made the place seem grubbier and cheaper than the fascinating reality.

Indeed the fact that watching a film failed to prepare me for visiting Chernobyl is quite incredible because the overwhelming sensation I felt when travelling round Chernobyl and its environs was how cinematic it all was.

The power complex itself is the perfect set for a seventies science-fiction paranoid thriller. When you arrive, you have to don protective suits and enter rooms where nothing has changed since the night the Chernobyl reactor went critical. Ninety eight-six in the Soviet Union seems to pretty much match Ninety Seventy-Five in disaster movie visual terms. Once my small party of friends and I had donned our white protective suits we instantly erased our modern day clothing and becoming cinematic shorthand for scientists. Then you get led deeper into the complex, along the buildings long and iconic “Golden Corridor”. As we walked in slightly awestruck silence, it was impossible for me to stop an internal monologue within which we were a crack team of the world’s greatest scientists assembled to save the world after a a secret military experiment had gone badly wrong.

To make things even more like a film, as we neared the end of the corridor, the guide pointed to a door at the very end. “You cannot go through this door,” our guide apologised, “it is too dangerous.” Years of watching movies made me think of one thing at this point. “What have you guys done behind that door?” my scientist character would have declared at this point, “Did you fools open a doorway to Hell”.

Walking around the abandoned city of Pripyat is no less cinematic. Nature is successfully reclaiming the city, and once busy roads are increasingly being lost to an encroaching forest. And in my mind, we had become another gang of science fiction cliches. This time folk awoken from a decade in suspended animation only to find they had missed the collapse of civilisation, And in the eerie quiet of an abandoned city there was always the risk that we might turn a corner and suddenly be confronted by a zombie. Or a terrifying mutant. Or maybe the one miracle child that might save humanity.

Near the ruins of the exploded reactor are the incomplete constructions of once planned further nuclear reactors. Giant abandoned echoey buildings, surrounded by lush greenery and stray dogs. They immediately made me think of Tarkovsky’s Stalker. There was even a crumbling warehouse with a floor of sand which I was convinced had only been put there to cash in on the lucrative Tarkovsky groupie tourist trade.

Since my trip to Chernobyl, though, HBO have broadcast their acclaimed mini-series covering the disaster. I hope that future travellers might get to watch some of that on the drive to the Exclusion Zone. In its gritty commitment to realism, aided by a sizeable budget, I think it might better prepare future travellers for what they’ll see when they get there. But there is no one film that really prepares you for the place. Instead you’ll likely draw on a whole history of science fiction and apocalypse stories to get the most out of the experience.

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