Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Deepwater Horizon (2016) - Movie Review

I have no real opinion when it comes to the use of fossil fuels. I understand that its current use is having certain hazardous effects on the environment, but I also understand that alternative energy isn’t yet at the point of replacing its ubiquity. I see it as a necessary evil for the time being more than anything else, something aided by the fact that we as a species have a history of decisions that have adversely affected the world around us, and the living things that live on it; trust me, burning oil and coal is a serious step-up compared to the other things we’ve historically burnt. Yeah, I’m just as surprised as you are that my usual soap-boxing stances on social issues didn’t quite translate on this one. So, as we get into today’s film, understand that I’m going in without any real bias at all; a rarity in these parts, I know.

The plot: Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is a roughneck working on the off-shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon. During a seemingly regular day on the job, a blowout causes a colossal incident aboard the rig, putting everyone on the rig in danger. Mike, manager Jimmy (Kurt Russell), worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez) and the rest of the 120+ crew on board have to make their way safely off the rig.

Much like Sully, this film emphasises the cast being greater than the sum of its parts. This means that highlighting individual performances as per usual is gonna be a bit tricky, as it somewhat diminishes this film’s themes of teamwork. Not that there aren’t stand-out performances, mind you. Wahlberg has found a very compatible director with Peter Berg, someone who is able to tap into Wahlberg’s genuine skill as an actor. He’s basically the film’s avatar of humanity, and he portrays that with enough grounding so that it never enters deification. Russell is quite fun as the head of the operation, and he probably gets the most dramatic muscle to flex throughout the film which he makes definite use of.

And then there’s John Malkovich as a liaison for British Petroleum, or Beyond Petroleum as they call themselves now for reasons not disconnected from events like the disaster on the oil rig. The man has always had a knack for being chronically and emphatically miffed on screen and he follows through on this one, only with a slight toning-down of his typical disgruntled-patron-at-a-classy-restaurant delivery. Honestly, were it not for his performance, his character would be pretty damn unwatchable. Everyone else, from Rodriguez to Ethan "Sailboat" Suplee to Maze Runner survivor Dylan O’Brien, lock in together to make their deliveries work, and in that unison everyone succeeds. Oh, and Kate Hudson is alright.

As a narrative, this film follows a very similar structure to Peter Berg’s last film Lone Survivor, where the first half has all the build-up, and the second half has all the payoff. It basically starts out like a less fantastical Alien in how it portrays the workers on board the titular oil rig; it’s just another day in the office and everyone has been together that long that their comradery is almost second nature. The build-up can be a bit sluggish, again much like Lone Survivor, but it at least feels like we’re supposed to getting into their working rhythm by understanding them better as people. It’s the kind of “it’s a living” mentality that ends up doing the overall production some favours, as it shows the workers on board as actual people working. Whatever points that are to be made about the accident itself, this film doesn’t make it a point of pointing the finger at any of the blue-collars that were working on that fateful day.

And then we get into the second half, where all hell breaks loose. In fact, given how seriously unnerving the images of the burning rig can get, hell is a pretty apt descriptor for it. The tension suddenly pulls itself as taut as conceivably possible and it never drops for the remainder of the film. The injuries/fatalities incurred during the disaster, the sheer determination from everyone to make sure they all leave safely, not to mention the superb use of light (or, in some cases, lack of light) to keep the atmosphere at its most hair-raising; the climax is honestly worth the build-up, as hazy as it can get in places.

This is ultimately a story about man vs. nature, and while the film acknowledges the working joes for who they are, that doesn’t mean that there are no statements made concerning environmentalism. In fact, it can get rather blaring in its depiction of Malkovich as Donald Vidrine, and by proxy BP, as the kind of money-hungry capitalist that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Captain Planet episode. He does rather well in the role, where the obnoxious character doesn’t bleed through into an obnoxious performance, but he is still portraying a straw man… that might actually be real to life. I maintain what I said about the use of fossil fuels in and of itself, but that doesn’t mean companies with certain questionable practices like BP get a free pass in that. I mean, Temple Grendin proved that there is a certain amount of mercy that can be exercised while doing relatively unpleasant acts.

However, even with that in mind, this still feels like a spiked plank being driven into the audiences’ heads regardless of its veracity. If I’m being honest, purely on the basis of showing the conflict between man and nature, Blair Witch did a better job with it by being reasonably subtler in its depiction and it made it a point to have character represent different viewpoints that all have their own nuances. Here, it’s just the innocent working man and the big bad higher-up; there are more effective ways of doing this.

Man, this is a nice-looking film. Not only that, it’s the kind of “nice-looking” that is becoming an increasing rarity in today’s day and age. Along with the script’s decent adhering to real-life events (The ironic safety award thing? Yeah, that actually happened.”), the production values have certainly aimed for realism as well because there is a shocking lack of CGI here. The set of the Deepwater Horizon itself is a to-scale replica and the insane hellfire it gets put through is all done more with pyrotechnics than computer wizardry. Once again, the harrowing image of the Horizon on fire from the trailer? Factual and even more effective in context to the rest of the film.

Seeing an actual place set on actual fire, along with all the sludge-slinging and bathroom-breaking that happens during, definitely makes the event itself feel a lot more visceral, something carried on with the make-up work. This is mostly done in relation to Jimmy, who gets put through some of the worst of it during the accident, and you can actively feel how painful it is between the prosthetics and Russell’s acting chops. It’s like one extended wincing session during his grizzlier moments, but it doesn’t feel like the film is aiming for gore points. The damage looks real and is made real, making the efforts done by the crew hit even harder once it sinks in just how much they have been hit.

All in all, while a bit contextually loud in places, this is a very effective disaster film and probably one of the few consistently good ones we’ve gotten in a while. The acting is solid, the direction is typical for Peter Berg by this point in how good it is once the action starts, and the action itself is just as effective as that in The Force Awakens and for precisely the same reason: An emphasis on tangibility rather than CGI. If Peter Berg sticks to this style of filmmaking, I fear it may become a bit one-note after a while, but all the same he has pulled through once again.

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