Deepwater Horizon (2016) (Review)

Documenting the cataclysmic explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the tragic Deepwater Horizon events of April 2010, in which the BP-owned oil rig exploded and killed 11 people, causing the pouring of millions of gallons of oil into the sea, is the latest to receive the big screen treatment. Subjects, as well as the 'disaster' genre, can be rather hit or miss; some handle the matter with the upmost respect to those involved, the lives lost and the heroism displayed, while others translate the events purely for entertainment, failing to capture the human effects of the disaster. Thankfully, Deepwater Horizon falls into the former, although it isn't quite the success it should be.

After multiple warnings and subsequent dismissals from the company's superiors, an explosion and oil spill on the Deepwater Horizon leaves hundreds of men and women struggling to escape the fire. Michael Williams (Mark Wahlberg) and Caleb Holloway (Dylan O'Brien) desperately attempt to save the lives of the crew onboard, including Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell), Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich) and Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), while the family at home begin to comprehend the news of the US' biggest oil spill disaster and largest environmental disaster in history. Based on the events, as well as the book Deepwater Horizon's Final Hours, the film is directed by Peter Berg and produced by Lionsgate.

Blockbuster in design and scale but offset from the summer release window to forgo Oscar-bait autumn territory, Deepwater Horizon manages to balance the exceedingly impressive visual of a typical summer release and the emotional turmoil associated with the award season. Worthy of seeing on the biggest screen possible, the film manages to remain surprisingly realistic in its action, with an element of verisimilitude crafted through the decision to remain as CGI-free as possible. From the fire-filled frames that engulf the rig to the sweeping shot of the technology, Berg manages to create both amazement and devastation that highlights the scale of both the mission and disaster, while refusing the lionise the characters beyond their basic human instincts and reaction. Its a surprisingly restricted film with a very clear focus to the story it wants to tell and the themes it wants to explore. It's both a spectacle and outstanding tribute to the victims on the Deepwater Horizon, including the deeply moving final sequence which commemorates the fallen beautifully.

Talking of the characters, the ensemble cast are unwaveringly solid with character intentions and traits known and understood, if not as detailed as one would hope and expect. Wahlberg's Williams is captivating and his drive to saving as many people as possibly is inspiring. He shares one of the films most tender moments with Rodriguez's Fleytas in the film's climax, demonstrating both the fear and bravery faced in the life-changing moments. Dylan O'Brien is a solid addition to the cast, surprising in one of his more serious roles and Kurt Russell succeeds in offering a nuanced performance once again. These characters help craft and build the tension that is sustained throughout the film, particularly through the third act and climax as the crew do their best to escape the burning rig, as well as explore the touching themes of humanity and selflessness profoundly, ensuring it impacts audiences in the most inspiring way.

While the cast give it their all and the subject matter is well-handled, the film isn't always executed as well as it should be. On a number of occasions, the shaky camera aesthetic makes it very difficult to track and follow the characters and action, forfeiting clarity for the effect of being caught in the whirlwind of action: at one stage, a character is killed and the audience remains unsure on who it is; this furious and frenzied editing is detrimental to the understanding of the film. Furthermore, the structure holds the film back; when the team head out to sea, a 20 minute period feels like its bridging the gap between acts and whilst in theory it is used for character building, it feels over cooked, disrupting the tension that begins building so early on. Earlier, I commented on how restricted the film feels and while that can be celebrated, I also think it holds back the film in another sense, failing to consider environmental cost and co-orporation villainy on home soil. These opportunities feel greatly missed and prevent the film from excelling towards a more enlightening and insightful film.

Deepwater Horizon thrives because of the tension, crafted through the impressive ensemble cast and the realistic action, stunts and effects. It has a number of flaws though, which prevents it from excelling and becoming a memorable picture, although the spectacle will tide you over long enough to enjoy and appreciate this disaster flick. It is impressive and it is immortalising for those killed in the disaster, but it doesn't fully embrace the scope of the disaster as much as one wants it too. As I previously mentioned with this summer's Nerve, Lionsgate continue to craft a post-Hunger Games slate and while this is a critical success so far, I'm still unsure they have crafted a model that will have them in line with their competitors. It's expense may be its letdown but I do believe its a story that needs to be heard (and seen - on a big screen!).


Summary: Deepwater Horizon benefits from a strong cast and impressively tense action effects, even though its frustrating flaws, including irritating shaky camera aesthetics, threaten to sink the film.

Highlight: A shot of two protagonist jumping through the air from the burning rig into the water is a breathtaking shot that demonstrates the film's mammoth budget.