“Deepwater Horizon” ends with a list of 11 people who died aboard the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, but it spends nearly two hours beforehand focused on one survivor. Electronics expert Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is the courageous figure at the center of this unsettling reenactment, directed by Peter Berg with a sharp eye for fiery details and the morbid suspense leading up to it, but fewer ideas to prop up the mayhem. As the bursting oil gives way to flames, Williams and gruff installation manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell on autopilot) squint and grunt their way through the shadowy structure in a hectic escape that forms the movie’s prolonged finale. Even though it takes nearly an hour to get there, the payoff is simplistic. “Deepwater Horizon” fixates on beginning of the infamous oil spill with the superficial intensity of a theme park ride. It turns a major tragedy into a minor disaster movie.
Still, it offers some intriguing context to the dark event, with Matthew Sand’s screenplay pulling from a New York Times article breaking down the decisions leading up to it. At the center of this diagnosis, Louisiana BP manager Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich in another thankless villain role) forces onsite workers to run a series of pressure tests on the rig that eventually overwhelm the pipes and wreak havoc left and right. Minutes rush by in a heated montage of computer screens featuring perilously high pressure numbers and the shaking structures beneath the surface. Of course, these eerie moments are underscored by a ubiquitous sense that Everything Is About to Very Wrong. Like “United 93,” Berg’s movie derives its most unnerving qualities from a foregone outcome.
Unlike that disquieting experience, however, “Deepwater Horizon” throws subtlety to the wind. The foreshadowing takes off in a series of opening scenes, as Mike starts his day at home with his loving wife (Kate Hudson, who spends much of the movie’s last act nervously bouncing around her kitchen) and their young daughter. As he attempts to explain the rig to her in childlike terms, he punctures a Coke bottle that ominously explodes. That’s about as inventive as the story gets before it careens into a cold display of craftsmanship in the service of never-ending suspense. Berg’s workmanlike approach offers plenty of extreme sights and sounds — machinery trembles on the verge of eruption in the movie’s slow march to inevitable chaos — but his characters fail to engage on a similar level.
When said chaos arrives, with grotesque spurts of black ooze, flying bodies, broken glass and streaming flames, we may as well be watching an aquatic remake of “The Towering Inferno.” As well-honed a disaster movie as one might expect, “Deepwater Horizon” doesn’t have much to offer beyond the sensory overload of drifting through a melting time bomb in the middle of the sea. Wahlberg, stern and focused throughout, never flinches at the mounting danger as he hurtles through the smoky hallways in an effort to save as many people as possible — although he’s mostly focused on saving terrified rig worker Andrea Fleyta (Gina Rodriguez, eyes bulging on cue), whose sole purpose is to give Wahlberg’s character the opportunity for a selfless act.
Amid all the yelling and flashing lights, “Deepwater Horizon” contains only the occasional hints of death; the cataclysmic environmental effects of the spill, meanwhile, have been relegated to the fleeting shot of an ailing bird. As a survival narrative, the movie follows a cacophonous path filled with flashy technical bells and whistles, although it finds a glimmer of depth in an prologue that touches on the ensuing trauma that haunts those who made it home. Before that, “Deepwater Horizon” does a formidable job of getting across what it must have been like on “the wall from hell,” but even as Berg takes us to the center of the action, the movie falls short of providing much of a reason to revisit it.
“Deepwater Horizon” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens theatrically on September 30.