Deepwater Horizon is a disaster movie about the BP oil spill that occurred in 2010 when the eponymous oil rig exploded near the Gulf of Mexico due to an oversight of health and safety regulations, causing the death of 11 men and the worst recorded oil spill in history.
The film is directed by Peter Berg and stars Mark Wallberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich and Kate Hudson, in what is meant to be an equally moving and harrowing commemoration of the event. Like any disaster film based on true events, it seems to seek to remember and to an extent honour the lives lost in the disaster while also acting as a warning for the future.
Given America’s notorious greed for oil, the film has great potential to strike a very sensitive, relevant chord and make a great critical statement about the country’s legislation around oil (see endless wars, invasions and other global catastrophes). The elements are there; Mike Williams, the family man who loves his wife and daughter, played by the ubiquitous rent-an-everyman Mark Wahlberg; Mr. Jimmy, a man of integrity who successfully coordinated previous digging procedures; the general crew that seems like a big, jokey family and Donald Vidrine, the greedy BP representative who indirectly causes the disaster, played by John Malkovich. Given these dynamics it shouldn’t be hard for the viewer to take sides as the ship catches fire, suffers a series of increasingly severe explosions and the main characters are struggling to escape with their lives, while trying to rescue as many crew members as possible.
However, the actors’ delivery and chemistry falls flat. Mark Wallbergb has the emotional range of a wooden plank, the lack of chemistry between him and his wife, played by Kate Hudson, and the aforementioned Mr. Jimmy, portrayed by Kurt Russell, make it hard to believe that any of them would be even remotely sad should another one die. The performance that saves the day is John Malkovich’s, who has proven over the years that he is great at playing an asshole; so at least the lack of nuanced characterisation make it impossible for you not to know where your sympathies as a viewer should lie. However, any hint of camaraderie, affection or friendship are destroyed by a few factors.
Firstly, screen time each of the actors get with one another is all too short. The film jumps from one relationship to another, trying to make the viewer engage with each one while failing to fully flesh out or develop any of them.
Secondly, you can smell the testosterone the same way you smell an oil spill or a gas leak (all of which are present in the film). When trying to assess the risks of continuing what will prove to be a fatal drilling, the macho cock-fighting overshadows any significant information being imparted on the potential dangers that might make the viewer want to bitchslap one side (i.e John Malkovich’s).
Thirdly, at least 45% of the film looks like the love child of a Van Damme action film from the 90s and something directed by Michael Bay. The natural drama of the life loss during the explosions is completely nullified by the cinematic glorification of the explosions, fires and protagonists running for their lives, only one-step away from being in Bay-Watch style slow motion.
All in all, Deepwater Horizon could have had great potential as something akin to a commemorative documentary. Instead its focus on simplistic dramatisation and creating visual set-pieces detracted from the film’s potential as an ever relevant and necessary reminder of America’s shady involvement in the oil industry. It is only when the credits roll and we are shown a series of photographs of the actual deceased that the veneer of Hollywood is stripped away and we are reminded that the events, and consequences are all too real. Perhaps the only worthy saving grace of this mostly facile film was John Malkovich’s performance as the dictionary definition of assholery.
Deepwater Horizon is in cinemas from September 30.