REVIEW: ‘Deepwater Horizon’ delivers riveting drama, terrifying spectacle

Deepwater Horizon as a film seems to strive above all for realism. In that regard, it succeeds spectacularly.

Forget any of this year’s horror films in terms of “scary.” This depiction of the 2010 man-made oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is more terrifying to behold than any found-footage walks in the woods or paranormal investigations.

Director Peter Berg’s effort to immerse audiences in the experience of being on the rig with its crew during its final hours succeeds thanks to incredible attention to detail and solid, “every-man” performances from the film’s star-studded cast. Nothing audiences see or hear in Deepwater Horizon rings false, and that’s why the film works so well.

What’s it about?

Of course, the story behind Deepwater Horizon should be familiar to most people, at least in the broad strokes.

On April 20, 2010, the Macondo well, an oil well located 40 miles off the Lousiana coast and three miles below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, experienced a massive “blowout.” The Deepwater Horizon, the sophisticated oil rig working the Macondo site for BP, suffered catastrophic damage in the resulting explosions.

11 members of the Horizon’s crew lost their lives that night, either trying to save the rig or in the ensuing evacuation.

The film depicts events that took place on the rig hours before the blowout. Installation manager “Mr. Jimmy” Harrell (Kurt Russell) and chief electronics tech Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) tangle with BP “company men” on board the Horizon concerned about why the operation was 43 days behind schedule. One of those BP managers, Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), clashes with the veteran rig crew, challenging their conclusions about safety tests and their concerns about the well’s stability.

Meanwhile, other rig workers like bridge crew member Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez, TV’s “Jane the Virgin“) and floorhand Caleb Holloway (Dylan O’Brien) go about their duties. Work on “the well from hell,” as Macondo was known, was almost done, and the crew was eager to get home.

Within hours, the crew’s worst fears are realized. The blowout begins, and all of the Horizon’s sophisticated defenses and redundancy systems fail to save the rig. Survival and escape become the only options for those still alive, but to do that they’ll have to go through the flames and combustible gas that turned their workplace into a deathtrap.

Deepwater Horizon final poster

As “real” as it gets

Deepwater Horizon marks the second “real-life heroes” collaboration between star Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg. The first was 2013’s Lone Survivor, which also immersed audiences the experience of the people at the center of the story.

In this film, the sense of realism comes in great part from astounding production design, photography, and special effects that bring both the rig and the disaster to life. If there’s CGI in Deepwater Horizon, it’s hard to spot. The sets all look practical, and the fireballs and explosions as “real” as they get in films.

All together, it’s an awesome spectacle, one that may earn Deepwater Horizon Oscar attention this year.

Characters stay “life-sized”

Along with overwhelming CGI, thinly written characters surrounded by needless melodrama usually sink weaker disaster films. Thankfully, Deepwater Horizon avoids those traps.

Rather, Berg and the scriptwriters deliver characters whose stories are genuinely relatable in order to draw audiences in. Is that part of the disaster film formula? Sure, but lesser films with weaker scripts incorporate subplots that invariably get discarded once things start blowing up.

In this film, the emotional ties that bind the characters get just enough weight to provide gravitas when lives are endangered. As such, Russell, Wahlberg, and Kate Hudson, playing Williams’s wife Felicia, all give solid, if understated, performances.

Jargon, dialect hamper understanding

All the attention to detail in Deepwater Horizon does present some challenges that film doesn’t quite overcome, however.

For one, all the specialized language and jargon in the script makes understanding exactly what’s happening difficult at times. It adds to the realism, but it also threatens to take audiences who struggle to comprehend it all out of the story entirely.

Regional dialect among some of the characters presents another cumbersome hurdle. Some of the performers handle the Cajun better than others, but it’s undeniably tough to get used to.

Worth seeing?

If you enjoy “real-life heroism” stories like Sully from earlier this year, then Deepwater Horizon is a must. It’s a well done and heartfelt effort to honor the courage displayed by the people whose experiences the film depicts.

Some may be critical of the film’s lack of attention to the environmental and economic impact of the disaster. Arguably, that’s another story entirely, one that continues to get attention in other media as litigation against BP continues.

Rather, Berg and the people behind this film focus instead on the stories of those who were there that day. Those stories are worth telling and worth remembering. If you give Deepwater Horizon a chance, you’ll most likely agree.

Deepwater Horizon

Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O’Brien and Kate Hudson. Directed by Peter Berg.
Running Time: 107 minutes
Rated PG-13 for prolonged intense disaster sequences and related disturbing images, and brief strong language.

Felix Albuerne
Felix Albuerne
One-time Blockbuster Video manager, textbook editor, trivia host, and community college English/Humanities teacher. Now a digital media producer, part-time film critic, amateur foodie, semi-retired beer snob, unabashed geek, and still very much a work in progress.