Saturday 29 October 2016

Movie Review: Deepwater Horizon (2016)

A disaster film based on real events, Deepwater Horizon is the story of the workers on board the vessel involved in one of the world's worst environmental disasters. The film tries to create characters worth caring about, but instead surrenders to excellent pyrotechnics.

It's 2010, and electronics technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) leaves his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) at home for another 21 day stint on board the Deepwater Horizon oil rig about 40 miles off the Louisiana coast. Deepwater Horizon is owned and operated by Transocean, and contracted to global energy giant BP. Also on the vessel is crusty rig manager "Mr. Jimmy" Harrell (Kurt Russell), Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), a member of the bridge navigation crew, and a clutch of BP executives including Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich).

Williams and Mr. Jimmy know that the vessel is underfunded, with many basic systems inoperable, including phone lines and some computers. The crew is under pressure from BP to accelerate their schedule, and shortcuts are taken despite worrisome pressure test results. A blowout followed by multiple mammoth explosions cripple the vessel and set it on fire, causing multiple fatalities and injuries, and forcing the survivors to try and abandon ship to save their lives.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion resulted in an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days, one of the world's all-time worst environmental disasters. But this film's intention is to remember the men victimized by the explosion and fire, and to pay tribute to the eleven workers (about 10 percent of the workforce) who lost their lives in the horror.

The first half of Deepwater Horizon sets the context, and the trouble with the film is apparent early on. Director Peter Berg has the opportunity to humanize the men (and with one exception, they are men) who will face disaster, but he comes up empty. Williams and Mr. Jimmy are sketched in as principled heroes-in-waiting, otherwise the first 60 minutes are a blur of gruff men and impressive equipment going about their work, and little that matters is revealed about any of them. Just before everything blows up the BP executives as exemplified by Vidrine are installed as the perfunctory cartoon villains of the piece, and then the special effects folks take over.

The second half is all jerky camera work, jarringly loud explosions, impressive fires and stroboscopic lights. There are acts of heroism amidst the chaotic horror, but the superb recreation of a floating hell casts a shadow on everything else. The special effects team does a masterful job of avoiding the cheesiness of CGI, and Deepwater Horizon does look and sound superb. But as a drama about people, it fundamentally lacks substance.

Wahlberg and Russell dutiful fulfill their roles as the men who connected the dots leading to tragedy, and then responded as best as they could to save lives. Malkovich makes for an effective corporate scoundrel. Kate Hudson is reasonably refreshing in a role away from awful romantic comedies. But the film ultimately sinks under the weight of good intentions consumed by raging fires.

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