Deepwater Horizon effectively turns the real-world disaster into an action/drama that’s more disturbing than thrilling to watch.
After spending some off-time with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and their 10-year old daughter Sydney (Stella Allen), electrician and oil rig worker Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) prepares for another three-week stint working aboard the Deepwater Horizon: a semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit (or MODU) operating some 40 miles southeast of the Louisiana coast, in the Gulf of Mexico. Joining Mike aboard the Horizon are such people as Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), the Unit’s only female employee; Jimmy “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell), the Horizon’s chief supervisor; and Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien), the youngest member of the Horizon’s crew.
Despite the vocal protests of Mr. Jimmy and the other workers responsible for operating the oil rig, the Horizon is kept running with minimal concerns for the quality of working conditions and safety by the employees of BP – the owner of the rights to drill in the Macondo Prospect, where the Horizon is stationed – including, BP engineer and rig supervisor, Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich). However, when a series of safety inspection tests carried out by the crew doesn’t go as planned, the worst fears of everyone onboard the Horizon suddenly become a horrifying reality.
The real-life disaster that was the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, which took place in April of 2010, is brought to life on the big screen by director Peter Berg: a filmmaker known for such popcorn movies as Hancock and Battleship, but also the storyteller who turned the harrowing true events behind Lone Survivor into critically-acclaimed cinema. Deepwater Horizon the movie begs comparison to Lone Survivor not only because both feature the same two key players on opposite sides of the camera (Berg as director and Mark Wahlberg as the star), but also because each film recreates the actual terrifying incidents that inspired them with meticulous attention to detail, creating an effectively immersive and visceral – if not always equally insightful or accessible – viewing experience in the process.
Based on the New York Times article entitled Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours written by David Barstow, David S. Rohde and Stephanie Saul, Deepwater Horizon is scripted by a somewhat unusual pairing: Matthew Michael Carnahan, who also collaborated with Berg on The Kingdom, and Matthew Sand – whose sole previous major writing credit is on the 2009 critical dud, Ninja Assassin. Like Carnahan’s past work in particular (see also State of Play, World War Z), Deepwater Horizon is a worthy, if formulaic, genre film – here, of the disaster action/thriller variety – that has more on its mind than simply to entertain. Deepwater Horizon doesn’t shy away from throwing a whole lot of oil rig terminology and jargon at moviegoers either, as it takes them through the daily routines of the Horizon crew members in the build-up to the rig’s literal meltdown. While Deepwater Horizon succeeds in fully pulling viewers into the world of its characters by using this approach, the downside is it prevents the film from being able to also turn the story of the Deepwater Horizon into a proper cautionary tale/parable like it aims to.
Berg and his director of photography Enrique Chediak (127 Hours, The Maze Runner) use a similar combination of docudrama aesthetics and more sophisticated cinematography techniques in order to give Deepwater Horizon a richer sense of authenticity, while at the same time making sure to keep the film’s proceedings visually-pleasing, taken as a whole. The explosion and destruction of the Horizon during the latter half of the movie is where the viewing experience for the film becomes truly enhanced by the IMAX format (which Deepwater Horizon is showing in), as heightened audio effects and enlarged imagery makes the disaster spectacle onscreen all the more unnerving and horrendous to watch unfold. Deepwater Horizon is still quite effective in this regard when viewed in the regular theatrical format though – so although IMAX is recommended, it’s not necessarily a must-have addition in this case.
Nevertheless, the setting of the Horizon rig and its subsequent destruction are the real “stars” of Deepwater Horizon, with its talented A-list cast being largely relegated to playing likable and relatable characters, but also people who are portrayed as being stock “types”. Mark Wahlberg brings his trademark everyman charisma to the role of Mike Williams (the matter of his accent – or lack thereof – aside) during the quieter domestic scenes with his family and while interacting with his coworkers. While the film manages to depict his heroic acts during the Horizon’s destruction without Wahlberg going into full-blown action hero mode, at the end of the day Mike is a pretty standard “good guy” and not much else. Similarly, John Malkovich is convincingly (and enjoyably) slimy in the role of Donald Vidrine, yet the character feels more like the embodiment of the collective corporate greed of BP that helped to contribute to the Horizon’s downfall, rather than being a fully-realized person himself.
The remainder of the characters in Deepwater Horizon also fall into distinct categories, but come off as being closer to real people thanks to the actors playing them. Kate Hudson in particular does solid work and quickly forms a dynamic with Wahlberg that makes them all the more believable as a long-married wife and husband. Similarly, although neither of their roles is really a stretch for them, Dylan O’Brien and Kurt Russell are equally reliable as a bright-eyed youngster and gruff, but principled, veteran oil rig crew member. As for Gina Rodriguez: although she’s not a main player for a good chunk of the film, Deepwater Horizon affords the Jane the Virgin star some worthy opportunities to demonstrate her dramatic acting chops to the filmgoing masses.
Although not quite as grisly as the hard R-Rated Lone Survivor, Deepwater Horizon is perhaps as much (if not more) affecting in the way that it shows just how dangerous a certain line of work often unseen in the public eye (here, that of life on an oil rig) truly can be. As such, Deepwater Horizon effectively turns the real-world disaster into an action/drama that’s more disturbing than thrilling to watch. The movie certainly impresses when it comes to presenting the nitty-gritty details of everything that went wrong during the real-life disaster, but that does come at the expense of creating a more thematically-rich narrative about the lives of the people involved. All in all though, Deepwater Horizon is another worthy addition to Berg’s filmography and makes for a genuinely unique mainstream filmgoing experience, thanks to its setting and on-the-ground shooting style.
As to how many moviegoers are actually interested in experiencing this real-word tragedy brought to life on the big screen (no matter how well and/or tastefully it’s handled) – that’s something that the box office will be the final judge of.
Deepwater Horizon is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 107 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language.
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