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.