Film Review: ‘Deepwater Horizon’

Deepwater Horizon Movie
Courtesy of Summit Entertainment

The worst ecological disaster in American history becomes a white-knuckle disaster movie, focusing on the men who survived the Transocean oil rig explosion, while ignoring its countless other victims.

At the end of “Diamonds Are Forever,” audiences cheer when James Bond succeeds in blowing up the giant oil platform the evil Blofeld uses as his base. It’s a spectacular finale, to be sure, though nowhere near as impressive as the real-life destruction wrought in “Deepwater Horizon,” a stunning Hollywood restaging of the explosion that consumed the Transocean deepwater drilling rig on April 20, 2010. Needless to say, no one cheers this time around: We all know that 11 men lost their lives in the accident, and that the ensuing oil spill became the country’s all-time worst ecological disaster. And yet, despite the fact that director Peter Berg presents the action as if everyone in the audience is an engineer, the excitement is undeniable. For a movie in which you can’t follow what’s going on for 75% of the time, “Deepwater Horizon” proves remarkably thrilling — and could well become one of the fall’s biggest hits when it opens Sept. 30.

Reteaming with Mark Wahlberg after what for both was a career-high collaboration on “Lone Survivor” (and drawing from some of the water-based visual-effects experience previously squandered on 2012’s “Battleship”), Berg doesn’t waste much time character-building before sending his blue-collar ensemble off to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, some 49 miles from land in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a tough job, not just because this co-ed crew must spend the next 20 days away from their wives, boyfriends, and kids, but also judging by the tedious, ultra-technical work that awaits them once aboard.

On this particular rotation, they’re accompanied by a few suits from parent company BP (one is politely asked to remove his magenta tie, since that’s the color of the most dire warning, and might make the others superstitious), who have come along to present Transocean crew captain Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell) with a workplace safety award. BP rep Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) has also come along to apply pressure and speed things up, since the rig is already 43 days behind schedule delivering oil. But we know something the characters don’t: Pressure is building deep below, and these pipes won’t be able to hold the oil for long. It’s kind of a cheat, not unlike insert shots of the fraying rope before a mountain climber’s plunge, just so audiences aren’t caught by surprise when the rope snaps. We expect effects to be preceded by causes in the movies, even if the Deepwater Horizon crew had no such warning in real life — and millions were later spent trying to reverse-engineer what had happened.

To the extent that the movie has an agenda, it is not to demonize BP (although a total boycott of the brand by all Americans would be perfectly reasonable payback), but rather to acknowledge the men and women stuck on-board the Deepwater Horizon when things went bad and to honor their heroism in saving as many lives as they did. In the tradition of films such as “Apollo 13” and “Titanic,” the human characters remain the focus, even as the surrounding spectacle threatens to overwhelm them. Wahlberg plays chief electronics technician Mike Williams, who puts others’ safety before his own while his wife does the worrying back home (Kate Hudson in a role with more dramatic heft than Laura Linney’s recent, superficially similar turn in “Sully”). By acting the hero, Williams is able to save several of his colleagues — including Jimmy, technician Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and a guy pinned between steel railings by his own broken leg bone — and yet there’s nothing unbelievable in the way he behaves. Both Wahlberg’s performance and Berg’s overall approach are fully committed to keeping things plausible, which is important, considering that in all likelihood, there’s more CGI onscreen during the finale than in any of Wahlberg’s “Transformers” movies. And besides, nobody wants to risk believability by making Williams all over-confident and invincible. The fact that we can relate is what makes his actions so inspiring.

Early on, when we meet Williams, his daughter Sydney (Stella Allen) reads a class paper about what her daddy does for a living. He “tames the dinosaurs,” she says, referring to the fact that fossil fuels derive from the long-extinct creatures, and her dad pours mud down pipes to keep the pressure from overpowering the system. The scene is meant to be foreboding (she builds a model using a soda can, which promptly explodes), but her description is presciently apt, considering what lies in store: When the raw crude bursts through those ultra-deepwater pipes, it arrives with all the force and destructive power of an unreasoning T-rex.

“Deepwater Horizon” has more than a little in common with “Jurassic Park,” both prime examples of our current era of effects-driven blockbusters, where the promise of CG carnage threatens to suffocate the pleasures of good, old-fashioned storytelling. What’s more, they both depict the consequences when nature fights back against greed and a total lack of humility — embodied here by Malkovich, who makes his character easy to hate as Vidrine’s avarice is surpassed only by his cowardice once the meltdown begins. Finally, imagine a movie in which all the dialogue sounds like Jeff Goldblum’s constant stream of chaos-theory mumbo-jumbo. Here, in order to heighten the realism, Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand’s script is written almost entirely in terse, sciencey-sounding commands: Close that hatch! Flip that switch! Swing that crane out of the way! Run across the burning platform and restart that generator! It’s enough to make one’s eyes glaze over, which they start to do in the film’s first half.

And then, quite suddenly, all hell breaks loose — so forcefully that we never have time to stop and ask what exactly is going on at any given moment. We practically need a voiceover to explain what we’re looking at most of the time, and though DP Enrique Chediak’s handheld lensing is intuitive enough — eavesdropping rather than anticipating, as a documentary crew might — the editing body-slams us all around the rig with little or no continuity between cuts. Amid such stylistic disarray, it’s hard to decide whether Berg is to be commended for staging such a logistically complex event (certainly visual effects supervisor Craig Hammack deserves hosannas) or ridiculed for making it so impossible to follow. And yet, the impact is undeniably visceral.

These engineers are doing their jobs, which are far too complicated for us to follow anyway. But once things go awry, they shift into self-preservation mode, and that’s a universal enough instinct. If anything, Berg’s seemingly disorganized approach adds to the movie’s effectiveness. While the editing keeps us constantly disoriented, Wylie Stateman’s hyper-real, Dolby Atmos-calibrated sound design often drowns out the dialogue, and yet the explosions physically make the theater shake around us, while the zings of flying shrapnel transform the space into a battlefield of sorts — one with more than just a lone survivor, but also infinitely more casualties. “Deepwater Horizon” doesn’t engage nearly enough with the aftermath, focusing instead on whether these professionals get back to their families. While certainly worth the ticket price, the film’s happy ending is one of the unhappiest beginnings in environmental history.

Film Review: 'Deepwater Horizon'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations), Sept. 13, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 107 MIN.

Production

A Lionsgate release of a Summit Entertainment, Participant Media presentation, in association with TIK Film (Hong Kong) Ltd., of a di Bonaventura Pictures, Closest to the Hole, Leverage Entertainment production. Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mark Vahradian, Stephen Levinson, David Womark. Executive producers: Jonathan King, Jeff Skoll, Mark Wahlberg. Co-producers: Todd Lewis, Cliff Lanning, Petra Holtorf-Stratton.

Crew

Director: Peter Berg. Screenplay: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Matthew Sand; story, Sand, based on an article by David Barstow, David Rohde, Stephanie Saul published in the New York Times. Camera (color, widescreen): Enrique Chediak. Editors: Gabriel Fleming, Colby Parker Jr.

With

Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, Douglas M. Griffin, James DuMont, Joe Chrest, Gina Rodriguez, Brad Leland, John Malkovich, Dave Maldonado, JD Evermore, Ethan Suplee, Jason Pine, Jason Kirkpatrick, Kate Hudson, Stella Allen, Dylan O'Brien.

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  1. Jim sawvel says:

    how pathetic mark is driving a Toyota

  2. Bliz says:

    I just watched this film and thought it was going to be a procedural bore but it was actually really well done and intense. Good acting and filmed action sequences and set pieces.

    However, i think the film may have benefitted from having third act showing the survivors dealing with life after as well as the environmental and local economic impact. There should have been also slightly more use of news coverage in background with wife character as the extent of the damage and catastrophe unfolds over time. Make it like 20-30 min longer overall as a result lol. Great disaster pic tho if incomplete as historical drama type film.

  3. Owen J Batt says:

    The Environmental DISASTER belongs 100% to BP !!! “Environment” issues was Npot the Focus of the MOVIE… ( BP “OWNS”All of the Environmental Consequences to this REAL LIFE EVENT !!!

    The Author of the Variety article would better be able to “Understand what’s going on…75% of the Time” if he’d taken time to Learn more about the OIL Exploration Business !!! It’s NOT Compicated; just ask some questions of people in the industry. ( Yes, I’m a person (Engineer/Project Manager…) who has worked over 4 decades in the Oil & Gas Business…)

    !!! The MOVIE is ALL about REAL people, with character, integrity & morals doing their jobs well in “The. OIL & GAS Drilling Business” ( TRANSOCEAN Drilling & Service Companies…) and being PUSHED by a BP Driling Supervisor (Company Man – for Drilling) to “Short Cut” Regular, Prudent DRILLING Practices ( Steps in the Correct Drilling Processes ) which forced SAFETY practices, which are Vrey Much a part of this industry, Out of The #1 FOCUS in ALL actions and practices, and making $$$ the Controling and #1 Criteria for actions BP Forced TRANSOCEAN to take… BP is Known well in this industry for “Their ACTIONS & FOCUS” as their “Regular Business Practices”… Even today their Company Culuny Culture remains “polluted” with the remnants of their past TOP DOWN Exec. Mgt. FOCUS on “Profitability @ ALL Costs…” and many of us in the industry avoid professional involvement with them on an ethical basis…

  4. want to watch a good movie ..?

  5. Having seen the movie, I’d tend to agree. What’s there is very well-produced and exciting. It’s that the movie only briefly touches on the environmental impact. We don’t need to go into the full investigation, but please do more to acknowledge that this was disastrous!

    My hunch: either they were pressed to get it under two hours and felt like there was no choice but to focus on the incident itself, or they were worried about ruffling feathers with the investigation. That last part doesn’t seem likely, since the very act of making a Deepwater Horizon movie is calling attention to BP’s terrible behavior.

  6. Je Vizzusi says:

    I live on The Gulf of Mexico, I never want to see any off shore rig within my vision. These Wildcats sign a release.. every man for himself. BP killed off our shrimping for years, an entire fishing industry and changed our eco system forever. Why should I care whatsoever about some crap disaster Movie when the World needs to care about the Planet’s Environment being killed off by big Oil! @JEV1A

  7. Russell says:

    I apologize I got excited. I recant my last comment. Again im sorry.

  8. Russell says:

    I do not have empathy for endangered species poachers being killed by the species they’re hunting. If you rape natural resources for greed or profit and are killed by that resource, it seems like poetic justice to me.

  9. Science Teacher says:

    Completely shocking to me that this review perpetuates the myth that fossil fuels are made from dinosaurs! Fossil fuels are made from the skeletons of tiny marine organisms that accumulated in the sediment hundreds of millions of years ago. Long before the dinosaurs evolved. Fact-checking is still an important part of journalism!

    • John Th says:

      “Fossil fuels are made from the skeletons of tiny marine organisms that accumulated in the sediment hundreds of millions of years ago. Long before the dinosaurs evolved.”

      Not correct. When marine organisms die they are either eaten by scavengers or go through the process of decomposition. They don’t accumulate over time millions of years. Fossil fuels are marine organisms that were rapidly buried by sediment in a catastrophic global flood. That’s why many of these fossils, although fossilized, show the soft tissue still in place (coral, sponges, etc) without decomposition. They were killed and buried extremely quickly by massive sediment plumes caused by the global flood. Dinosaurs didn’t evolve either.

      • Boycott BP? Nonsense...let's just buy teslas says:

        Am going to agree with the science teacher on this one. Explains why geologists generally look for areas that were at the bottom of shallow seas during the appropriate part of geologic time when scouring the earth for hydrocarbon reserves.

        “Like oil, natural gas is a product of decomposed organic matter, typically from ancient marine microorganisms, deposited over the past 550 million years.

        This organic material mixed with mud, silt, and sand on the sea floor, gradually becoming buried over time. Sealed off in an oxygen-free environment and exposed to increasing amounts of heat and pressure, the organic matter underwent a thermal breakdown process that converted it into hydrocarbons.”

  10. Garod says:

    Apollo 13 bro.

  11. USCGCGULF says:

    This seems like a good film, we’re lucky since the summer was so pathetic for films. A really riveting topic, and I hope it does well. I’m curious to see the VFX, so much of the offerings have been lazy, and we really don’t need a thousand sound speakers distracting the story. Keep it in on the screen, call Chris Nolan if you need advice on dialog.

  12. charlie says:

    Variety – why do you keep listing the ‘crew’ as director, dp and editor but no art director?

  13. therealeverton says:

    “Reteaming with Mark Wahlberg after what for both was a career-high collaboration on “Lone Survivor” ”

    Could you please tell me what you mean by this? I may may be missing something obvious, but I don’t get it.

  14. I was interested in it because of Malkovich. It’s very rare see him in these type of Hollywood movies, so I assumed, it would be a good one.

  15. Am looking forward to watching the movie. The comment ‘far to complicated for us to follow’ is a little irksome, perhaps because as a retired 35 year offshore supervisor with Transocean I would hope to follow at least some of it! Thankfully there is not much BP bashing; anyone thinking they were entirely to blame probably finds most things “to complicated to follow”.

    • James Gannon says:

      I agree completely with your assessment of it being “too complicated to follow.” I knew nothing about off-shore drilling before this disaster and everything I do know has come mainly thru the news and a tiny bit of reading myself. For an entertainment editor/writer to be so disconnected from what happened in the real world is disconcerting to me. There wasn’t anything complex within the movie that was hard to follow at all. It was all very well explained with the assumption that most people had a general understanding of why what happened happened… Which was all covered in the news and follow on investigations and trials. Bad writing in this article imo.

    • Michael Anthony says:

      Agree with your comment “Thankfully there is not much BP bashing….”. Truth be told, it could have happened to any company drilling in the waters. As long as the world demands oil, there is always the chance of another disaster, even one that could be far worse.

  16. chasgoose says:

    “Deepwater Horizon’ has more than a little in common with ‘Jurassic Park,’ both of which are prime examples of the new era of effects-driven blockbusters, where the promise of CG carnage takes precedent over classical storytelling. ”

    I feel like you mean Jurassic World here. Not to say that Jurassic Park is a paradigm of classical storytelling, but it’s so effective because it definitely didn’t let the effects take precedence over the storytelling…

    • Pondmocha says:

      I think what they mean is that while other movies are relying on effects, Deepwater Horizon relies on storytelling, like how Jurassic Park did in the 90s. That’s how I interpreted it anyway.

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