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Chernobyl, Fullmetal Alchemist, and the best things we watched this weekend

Everything from harsh reality to pure escapism

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a man in a hazmat suit cleans up chernobyl in HBO’s Chernobyl Image: HBO

This weekend, the number one movie at the American box office was Empire Strikes Back. Yes, George Lucas’ 1980 sequel to Star Wars returned to drive-ins and the few open theaters in the United States to gross nearly $500K, topping — well, other old movies back in circulation. Hollywood continues to kick the can of new releases as it contends with the coronavirus pandemic, leaving the future of large-scale entertainment uncertain.

Meanwhile, those of us at Polygon are turning to home entertainment to fill the expansive void of new releases. A few absorbing new films arrived to streaming this weekend, including Netflix’s The Old Guard, Hulu’s Palm Springs, and the VOD sci-fi release Archive. But most of us found ourselves plowing through our backlogs; case in point, our editor-in-chief Chris Plante finally found time for HBO’s award-winning 2019 miniseries Chernobyl, which he found had uncanny connections to the present moment. If you can stomach the unsettling, almost Lovecraftian true story, it’s a must-see.

Chernobyl wasn’t the only thing those of us at Polygon watched this weekend. Below, we’ve collected our other favorites from the weekend, in hopes of offering a suggestion or two of what you should watch this week. Be sure to let us know in the comments what you enjoyed over the weekend, too.


As Valery Legasov and Ulana Khomyuk, Jared Harris and Emily Watson stand over a table covered with documents in Chernobyl Photo: Liam Daniel/HBO

I watched all five episodes of HBO’s Chernobyl miniseries this weekend, and I’m unsure if now is the worst or best time to recommend the historical recounting of systemic governmental failure in the face of catastrophe.

On one hand, I get enough nihilism when I read the Washington Post and the Austin Chronicle’s reporting on the failures of our government on national and local levels. I skim Twitter and see militias defending statues to racist traitors, police brutalizing protestors, and old friends partying as hospitals hit capacity. Do I really need a show that spends one episode tailing a band of men forced to execute dogs and cats that have been exposed to extreme radiation? Isn’t life grim enough?

On the other hand, I’ve been magnetized to media that confronts anxiety inducing dilemmas head on. Not disaster movies or post-apocalypse thrillers. No, I’ve become obsessed with stories about institutional failure, about the challenge of relating to others with vastly different life experiences, about poisoned systems and structures. I’ve appreciated documentaries like The Thin Blue Line and Harlan County, USA, and dramas like Kurosawa’s High and Low and Asghar Farhad’s A Separation.

Chernobyl is arguably the most extreme example of this fixation, and the most flagrantly similar to our moment. Here is a disaster unprecedented for those experiencing it, one worsened by layers of inexperienced leadership who, time and again, act out of self-interest, costing the lives of the people they’ve sworn to protect. And yet, the bravery of people with far less power and far more to lose, prevents the complete and utter ruin of their nation. This isn’t a happy story with a simple hero. Nobody saves the day and receives a big reward. Most characters die, and those who don’t suffer lives scarred by tragedy. The pleasure of the story, if you can call it that, is not personal, but universal. It’s knowing that we — all of us — are part of something bigger than ourselves; that doing what is right might not always be best for the individual, but serves the greater arc of civilization.

So yes, now is the best time to Chernobyl.—Chris Plante

Chernobyl is streaming on HBOGo and HBOMax.

And everything else we watched...

The Age of Shadows

age of shadows: troops stand holding their guns Photo: CJ Entertainment

Polygon’s Karen Han and I got to chatting about our favorite Korean war movies on Twitter a while ago, bonding over Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War and The Admiral: Roaring Currents. But I’d never seen The Age of Shadows. This weekend I rectified the situation.

Directed by Kim Jee-Woon and starring Song Kang-ho (Parasite), it’s an action-packed thriller with some brilliant gunplay and snappy cinematography. Imagine Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy set in 1920s Korea during the period of Japanese colonial government and you’ve just scratched the surface. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, it’s pretty dense. I’ll be giving it a second watch soon. —Charlie Hall

The Age of Shadows available on Blu-ray or a DVD.

The Baby-Sitters Club

One of the babysitters worries over a sick kid in Netflix’s The Baby-Sitters Club. Photo: Kailey Schwerman / Netflix

I have my kids trained pretty well with regard to streaming services. While we have the Netflix and the Disney Plus accounts locked down, they still know they need to ask me and/or mom before they embark on a new series. That’s mostly how we ferret out the weird, knock-off Disney princess movies from Russia and what not. But, we have different concerns for The Babysitters Club, which just 20 minutes in sold us as a greenlight for the kids.

Not only do they keep the spirit of the original books, but they’re all cleverly updated for a new generation. I strolled in from the grill on Sunday to find my oldest daughter watching a bunch of powerful young women setting up a barricade with a canoe to protest classist fees at the sleepaway summer camp. Plunking down, I then marveled as the camp director defused the situation, while also empowering everyone involved.

Netflix, my oldest is wondering if you could please make three more seasons? We don’t need another Bunk’d situation on our hands. And don’t fritter away the momentum like you did with Project Mc2. —CH

The Babysitter’s Club is streaming on Netflix.


Dorohedoro: A snake man bites the head of a human man Image: MAPPA/Netflix

On the recommendation of a friend for a new half-hour Watch It While I Eat show, this weekend I tucked into the first couple of episodes of Dorohedoro, based on the manga by Q Hayashida. The anime takes place in a grim world of urban poverty and magical horror, where sorcerers from another dimension “practice” their abilities on the largely powerless inhabitants of a grime-covered city. The setting — full of drippy tenements, inventive character designs, and buckets of blood, is a bit like Junji Ito and Clive Barker teamed up to make a Studio Ghibli film.

But in the midst of all the horror trappings — the books full of teeth, the faces peeled off, the dishes made from mushrooms growing on dead bodies — we have what are almost slice-of-life comedy stories about our protagonist, Caiman. Caiman can’t remember anything about his life before a sorcerer “practiced” on him, bestowing him with a great big spiked lizard head. Now, in-between leaning on his friend Nikaido to make him tons and tons of gyoza, and working at a hospital for “practice” victims, he searches for the sorcerer who made him this way, so he can kill him and undo the magic.

He does this by popping the head of every sorcerer he meets inside his mouth, where they meet the man who lives inside his mouth, who can tell whether or not they’re the sorcerer who gave Caiman his lizard head. Caiman has never been able to see the man inside his mouth. He has no idea who the man inside his mouth is. The show is extremely weird, and extremely funny. —Susana Polo

Dorohedoro is streaming on Netflix.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

Edward Elric stands on top of a green hill, reaching out to the sky. He is wearing his trademark red calf-length coat and there are grass blades flying around. Image: Bones Inc.

I watched the first series of Fullmetal Alchemist back when you had to buy anime on DVD and it would cost like a billion dollars because each disc had like two episodes on it and every anime series was 1,000 episodes long. It was good though.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a redux that more closely follows the manga series, and it goes unbelievably hard while feeling entirely fresh. I burned through the five seasons in about two and a half weeks, and while sometimes convoluted, it’s an always-entertaining story about two brothers on a quest to heal the physical and spiritual injuries they suffered while delving into taboo magic. From there, the plot is full of deep state conspiracies, will-they-won’t-they friendships, and cool monsters.

I don’t want to yell at you about how you absolutely need to watch another anime so I’ll just hit ya with three selling points:

1. The fights are good. The “alchemy” in the show’s title refers to a form of magic and/or science that allows certain people to do very cool things. If you’ve seen Avatar: The Last Airbender, you know the drill. Cool martial arts choreography, mixed with fantastical powers. The show’s animation is consistently good, but when characters start fighting, it can get virtuosic. There were moments where I had to immediately rewind and watch bits again, because I couldn’t believe what I had just seen.

2. The tone is good. FMA: Brotherhood does an outstanding job balancing incredibly dark plot points and painful moments with tons of silliness and genuine warmth. It’s nice.

3. The cast is good. Just about everyone the show introduces you to is weird and lovable. The show really hits its stride in the later seasons when the cast has expanded, been broken into mismatched troupes, and scattered to the wind. Imagine a version of Game of Thrones where the author deeply, deeply loved all of their creations. I can’t count how many times the show served up what I assumed would be a background character or disposable villain, only to see that character stick around and play a substantial role for the remainder of the series. —Patrick Gill

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is streaming on Netflix.

The Legend of Hei

The Legend of Hei still Beijing Hanmu Chunhua

This year, the annual Annecy Animation Festival was held online for the first time, due to the coronavirus outbreak. That meant it was the first time I got to participate, and I was hugely excited to see what Annecy was like. But like so many of the other film festivals that have tried to move online, Annecy ran up against limitations, presumably because of producers and studios who were concerned about their work streaming online ahead of release. A lot of the year’s most exciting animation offerings were only offering short excerpts instead of entire features. The upside, though, was that I got to experience the first seven minutes of The Legend of Hei, a thrilling Chinese animated feature about the secret community of shape-changing demons operating in modern society. This weekend, I sought out and watched the rest of the film, and it’s marvelous.

The Legend of Hei is the feature-length expansion of a web animation by a Chinese artist who goes by MTJJ. It’s popular enough to have spawned a mobile game and a graphic novel, but the franchise isn’t well-known in America. That should change once Legend of Hei gets discovered by one of the many streamers or companies picking up anime (like Crunchyroll and Netflix) or international animation in general (looking at you, GKIDS). Legend of Hei is packed with action, as two factions of demons (or “goblins” or “monsters,” depending on your translation) face off for the future of their kind — think what Isao Takahata’s Studio Ghibli curiosity Pom Poko would look like if there was a second group of tanuki with a much more aggressive stance against humanity.

But it’s also a film about an adorable, scrappy, egotistical little cat-demon-boy named Hei who’s trying to survive on his own in the world, and navigate a war he doesn’t understand yet, and come to terms with his own powers. Legend of Hei is packed with colorful and memorable characters, and big explosive action, but the most memorable scenes may just be Hei trying to face off a stronger foe with all the tiny defiance in his big-eyed little kitty body. —Tasha Robinson

The Legend of Hei is not yet available in the U.S., but translated episodes of the original web animation are streaming on YouTube

Ultimate Beastmaster

a man hangs from two sets of rotating rings in ultimate beastmaster Image: Netflix

There’s nothing like watching super strong, competent athletes doing stunts while you sit in your pajamas at noon drinking coffee you couldn’t be bothered to reheat. That might sound sad, but it feels great knowing that rock climbers and pole dancers and parkour instructors have tackled the four levels of “the Beast” so I don’t have to.

Like other Netflix-produced stunt shows, Ultimate Beastmaster features an inconsistent commitment to its premise; the outside of the course is shaped like a gigantic, demonic jungle cat and features a pool of “blood” (water, lit red) for players to safely drop into. Some obstacles sport body-adjacent names like “Brain Matter” and “Throat Erosion” while others are just nonsense power-words “Mag Walls” and “Energy Coils.” That aside, it’s amazing to see the ease of these athletes passing through the unbelievable challenges — and just as hilarious to watch the accidental-slapstick the results from somebody failing to time a tricky jump off a treadmill.

The show features teams from multiple countries, each repped their own hosts, and part of the joy is seeing these local celebrities interact with each other, and alternate between smack-talking and supporting the competition. The editing is smart and tight, breezing through the highlights of competitors who don’t make it far so you can get invested in those that do. If you’d like to hear Terry Crews bemoan players “slipping into the blood” for a few hours — and who doesn’t! — Ultimate Beastmaster has you covered. —Jenna Stoeber

Ultimate Beastmaster is streaming on Netflix.

What We Do in the Shadows

Laszlo and Nadja point at Nandor in What We Do in the Shadows TV series Russ Martin/FX

I’ve heard nothing but good things about the FX series based on Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, but I loved the 2014 movie so much I avoided the show out of fear of disappointment. What a fool I was: The series is a gosh darn delight. Created by Clement, it follows another group of vampire roommates who are (un)living in Staten Island instead of the film’s New Zealand. Though the show maintains the offbeat humor and mockumentary style of the movie, and the characters embody similar archetypes, it still feels like a fresh adaptation.

One of the archetypes reinvented for the show is the human familiar who serves a vampire master in the hopes of eventually being turned into one. With all due respect to Jackie van Beek, who plays the role in the film excellently, the show’s familiar Guillermo is absolutely perfect. As he tells us in the pilot, Guillermo has wanted to be a vampire ever since he saw Antonio Banderas in Interview with the Vampire. Played by Harvey Guillén, Guillermo is sweet and funny and serves as the emotional heart of the show. I would die for Guillermo.

I watched the first half of season 1 this weekend and can’t wait to catch up. —Emily Heller

What We Do in the Shadows is streaming on Hulu.

The 39 Steps

Robert Donat stars as Richard Hannay holds a piece of paper in The 39 Steps Image: The Criterion Collection

Before Alfred Hitchcock was “renowned Hollywood director Alfred Hitchcock”, he was “British thriller expert Alfred Hitchcock.” 1935’s The 39 Steps came out of an early period in the director’s career in which he was literally cranking out spy stories and tension-filled tales; he was only 36 at the time of release, but The 39 Steps was his 24th directorial effort. And while the film is regarded as a sketch for true wrongfully-accused-man-on-the-run masterpieces like North by Northwest, it’s not amateur hour: In adapting John Buchan’s novel of the same name, Hitchcock’s agile, angular filmmaking is on full display.

Robert Donat stars as Richard Hannay, a regular Joe thrust into the world of espionage when a woman he brings home after a night at the theater turns out to be a spy — and, eventually, a spy with a knife in her back. Accused of murder, Hannay flees London for Scotland, hoping to solve the mystery of the “the 39 steps” while avoiding a country-wide manhunt. Hitchcock pulls out the stops: A foot chase on a train is packed with gags (“Watch out for that man carrying a giant tray of champagne glasses!”) and buttoned with an iconic high-angle view of a bridge’s icy drop. A sequence at a farm house, in which Hannay hopes two bumpkins might stash him away from the police, overflows with character quirk and tension. When a pair of spies capture Hannay and handcuff him to a witness, a no-bullshit woman named Pamela (Madeleine Carroll), the two make a getaway that turns them into a golden-age-of-Hollywood romantic pair. Per usual, Hitchcock’s misogyny and gaze gets in the way of Pamela’s arc, but for a movie made in 1935, The 39 Steps introduces a set of female characters who flex agency in the face of authority. Like every turn in the film — plot- of character-wise — it’s unexpected.

Turning on a black-and-white movie can feel like a chore. So many films from the pre-1940s fail to stand the test of time, and the chasm between old-fashioned and modern performance styles reasonably turns off viewers. But I’d argue The 39 Steps transcends the time period: part Bond movie, part comedic caper, and anchored by a performance that feels Ryan Goslingian, it’s a black-and-white movie that feels alive and contemporary. —Matt Patches

The 39 Steps is streaming on HBOMax.