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D: Peter Berg / 107m

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez, Kate Hudson, Ethan Suplee, Dylan O’Brien

Arriving at the Deepwater Horizon oil rig site in the Gulf of Mexico to learn that certain safety checks haven’t been carried out, general operational supervisor “Mr Jimmy” Harrell (Russell) and chief electrical engineer Mike Williams (Wahlberg) find themselves at odds with BP executive Donald Vidrine (Malkovich) who is advocating that drilling continue despite the absence of these checks. With many more of the crew of the rig expressing their concerns, Vidrine pulls rank and the drilling resumes. Pressure begins to build in the pipeline, and further signs point to a dramatic, and likely, system failure. When it does, a massive blowout ensues, and the resulting explosion causes tremendous damage to the rig, threatening the lives of everyone on it.

As fires rage all around them, the workers’ attempt to evacuate the rig. Williams finds himself rescuing several of his colleagues, including “Mr Jimmy” who has been badly injured. With the Coast Guard racing to the rescue, and with no guarantee that the fires won’t cause the rig to sink, Williams et al must rely on their own ingenuity in order to get to safety, while the world looks on at what will become the worst environmental disaster in US history.

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Watching Deepwater Horizon‘s first forty minutes, with its depictions of bubbling air pockets within the drill shaft, and the pipe itself shifting in protest against the pressure being exerted on it, it’s not hard to find a degree of anxiety about what’s going to happen creep up on you. It’s during this stretch that director Berg, aided by editors Gabriel Fleming and Colby Parker Jr, ratchets up the tension as he sets the scene for what we all know will be a nightmarish tale of survival. He also does a good job of introducing the main characters – along with principal supporting character, “Mr Jimmy”‘s moustache – and making us care about them. But once the oil hits the fan and fire takes a hold of the rig, the movie takes a strange left turn and becomes a standard men-in-peril movie where it’s hard to distinguish who’s doing what, where and how.

Inevitably, the movie regales us with moments of sacrifice, heroism and incredible fortitude, but it also features various stock elements, such as Hudson’s anxious wife stuck at home watching it all unfold on TV, and Malkovich’s suitably oleaginous BP executive looking sheepish as he gets in a lifeboat. While it’s easy to see why Berg has included these moments, it’s the way in which they help dissipate the tension established earlier on that proves problematical. It’s equally unhelpful that despite all the pyrotechnics and practical effects on display, Deepwater Horizon feels at times like an extreme, sea-based version of The Towering Inferno (1974). It makes for a distracting viewing experience (even if it wasn’t Berg’s intention). That said, the performances are uniformly good (though Malkovich’s accent is distracting), and the script manages to avoid too much foreshadowing (e.g. “I can’t wait to get home and see my newborn child”, from someone who’s clearly going to snuff it).

Rating: 7/10 – curiously uninvolving once things go from bad to staggeringly worse, Deepwater Horizon is a visually impressive retelling of an incident that BP would probably like to forget about completely; but spectacle without a human element to guide us through it is just that, spectacle, and the movie never finds an answer to the way in which it shifts down a gear after such an effective opening.

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