Movies succeed if they, at the very least, simply entertain. Director Peter Berg’s DEEPWATER HORIZON easily entertains, with the likeable presence of Mark Wahlberg, some lean and mean plotting, and of course, that big fiery wreck at the center of it all. And what an explosive wreck it is. Those coming to see stuff blow up and people survive against insurmountable odds will more than get their money’s worth. Yet, there’s a nagging feeling that Deepwater Horizon could have been a movie with more to say, to use its big budget explosions for a greater purpose than just satisfying the masses’ appetite for spectacle, especially considering the huge ecological impact the actual event left behind. As a movie, Deepwater Horizon succeeds in what it sets out to do – entertain through a big budget disaster film – but it is ultimately a missed opportunity for what could be a far more powerful story.
The movie begins with various crew members of the Deepwater Horizon rig waking up and heading off to be transported to the rig. Most notable among these is Mike Williams (Wahlberg). There are perfunctory scenes of family life to show what’s at stake for Mike, including his wife, Felicia (Kate Hudson), and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen). After we get some exposition out of the way – Sydney reads her school assignment out loud explaining what her dad does for work – it’s off to the rig for Mike. Joining him on the helicopter is Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriquez). The movie throws us a few foreboding omens (as if nobody watching knows what’s coming), including a bird striking the helicopter shuttling the crew and a BP bigwig wearing a magenta tie. For those on the rig, magenta is the color signifying catastrophic failure. Not something the superstitious want to see on a drilling rig with thousands of moving parts.
Once there, the movie tosses all sorts of drilling jargon like confetti, often in loud environments, in accents that can be difficult to understand. Those unfamiliar with the ins and outs (in other words, the majority of those watching this movie) will likely be lost. And yet, somehow it completely works, adding to the verisimilitude. There’s no dumbing down for the audience once we’re on the rig. The population of the rig itself is comprised of two types of people: The workers and the BP executives. The drilling is 43 days behind, and the execs are anxious to get things back up and running. To expedite this, they’ve passed over a cement integrity test and want drilling to commence right away. Russell’s Jimmy is there to chastise them for it, insisting on conducting the tests to make sure everything is copacetic.
Enter BP executive Vidrine (John Malkovich, chewing the scenery like a steak dinner). Vidrine has dollar signs in his eyes and even after a troubling test on the rig’s integrity, he demands they push forward. Obviously, this is a mistake. The scenes that follow, in which things begin going wrong, are immensely tense. Hell doesn’t break loose all at once; it comes in stages on the rig and each stage has a greater impact than the last. Even knowing how this all ends, there’s still a glimmer of hope that everything will be okay once the crew manages to get the pressure under control. That’s a credit to the film for keeping that kind of suspense up in a movie with a foregone conclusion.
When the destruction truly does begin, again the film shows it in all its special effects glory, and it’s a ride. At that point, it becomes all about survival for those aboard the rig. And when everything is on fire and explosions are going off every three seconds, it seems almost unbelievable that there were not more casualties among the 126 onboard. Once the rig is fully engulfed in flames, the movie basically becomes mayhem. There’s no discernible idea of where anything is located, and although frustrating, it again works to a degree in the movie. During that kind of destruction, all sense of orientation is out the window, even if knowing where point A is and point B is would help the audience understand what the characters are facing.
The spectacle of the structure blowing up is well-crafted and an obvious draw of the movie, but what the more interesting, human side of these events comes at the end, once Mike is safe on the rescue boat and taken to his hotel afterwards. It’s clear the disaster has affected him to a great degree, as anyone would expect it to, and it’s a stark contrast between his calm, leading behavior on the exploding rig and frail state now. Unfortunately, the movie ends quickly after just a couple of scenes and jumps to title cards to explain the aftermath. And while seeing the real-life pictures of those lost has a terrific emotional impact, there’s a lot left to be desired. Deepwater Horizon succeeds in showing the enormous destruction of the drilling rig but isn’t as successful in showing the impact of these real life events and why we should care – beyond the obvious avoidance of losing human life.
Running Time: 107 minutes
Wil Loper | Contributor