January 5, 2017


Starring Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Dylan O'Brien, Kate Hudson, Ethan Suplee. Directed by Peter Berg. (2016, 107 min).

As far back as I can remember, disaster movies have been my favorite genre. Good ones, bad ones, so-bad-they're-good ones...there's something about mass destruction I've always found wonderfully entertaining. Their heyday was in the 1970s, when such creative cataclysms as Airport and The Poseidon Adventure laid down the blueprint for a slew of others to follow, including what's generally considered the epoch of the genre, The Towering Inferno.

For a brief time, that blueprint was foolproof...gather some marquee names, throw them in a burning skyscraper/sinking ship/quake-ravaged town, add some subplots & big-ass special effects and you had a license to print money. Regarding the characters, you could almost always count on seeing the selfless & down-to-Earth hero, the woman who loves him, the "cute" child who needs rescuing, a pop star who shows up to croon an Oscar-baiting love song, the estranged couple who fall in love all over again just before one of them dies, the gruff-but-kindly hardass, the “expert” who designed whatever vehicle or structure that's now killing people. I could go on, but would be remiss if I didn't give a shout-out to one more crucial character: the “company man” whose greed and carelessness is usually the catalyst for the disaster in the first place. He exists to contradict the hero's common sense at every turn, then when the shit does hit the fan, he gets a heaping helping of karmic retribution.

These films were definitely products of their time, and while no one really makes them like that anymore, disaster movies never actually went away. The genre even made something of a comeback in the 90s under the guise of action movies (Twister), science-fiction (Deep Impact), epic drama (Titanic) or true stories (Apollo 13). The formula was a bit different, but as long as people died and shit got blown up, all was still right with the world.

Deepwater Horizon is based on a true story as well – the Gulf of Mexico oil rig explosion in 2010 - but adheres to that 70s' Hollywood disaster formula more faithfully than recent films like The Finest Hours and Sully (though the latter is Clint Eastwood's best movie in years). We have the down-to-Earth hero (Mark Wahlberg), his loving wife (Kate Hudson, in a rather thankless role), the gruff hardass and expert roll into one (Kurt Russell). 

Mr. Wahlberg is not feeling Good Vibrations right now.
It also features a doozy of a company man in form of John Malkovich, chewing the scenery and having a whale of a time as sleazy BP executive Donald Vidrine. He refuses to allow Mike (Wahlberg) and Mr. Jimmy (Russell) to test the stability of the drilling foundation on the sea floor because falling further behind schedule would be costly. Of course, he lives to regret that decision when the rig explodes and burns out of control, killing some people and trapping dozens of others. Much of the second half of the film has Mike selflessly trying to save co-workers from burning alive while awaiting rescue.

Aside from Mike, Mr. Jimmy and Vidrine, none of the other characters are particularly memorable unless they're sacrificing their lives to save others, but the spectacular mayhem more-than makes-up for that. The film takes some time to get going – mostly to explain all the tech-talk and establish Vidrine as a despicable ass. But when disaster finally strikes, Deepwater Horizon is vivid, chilling, intense and completely convincing. We never feel like we're watching these actors in front of a green screen. While the rig's inner workings and causes of the explosion are complicated, the screenplay always makes certain those of us who've never set foot on a drilling platform clearly understand everything. Best of all, even though it's based on true events, the overall plotline is straight out of a good old fashioned, 70's-era disaster epic. Woo Hoo!

Deepwater Horizon isn't quite the emotional triumph it clearly wants to be, and you probably won't give it a ton of thought afterwards (except maybe to Google whether or not some of those BP bastards got what they deserved). But the performances are good and the experience of being stuck on this burning rig as it topples around us is as intense and real as any destructive drama you'd care to name. It may not have a sappy song interlude, obnoxious kids or silly subplots (unless you count Mike's quest for a dinosaur bone to give his kid), but old school disaster fans will find a lot to love. Put it in and play it loud, folks.

BEYOND THE HORIZON” - A lengthy, five-part documentary featuring the primary cast.
FEATURETTES: “The Fury of the Rig”; “Deepwater Surveillance”; “Work Like an American”; “Captain of the Rig” (this feature focuses on director Peter Berg).

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