Deepwater Horizon review: oil rig drama sinks

Deepwater Horizon is an awkward attempt at retrofitting an actual tragedy onto the standard Hollywood disaster movie template.

The film is based on the April 20, 2010 event that claimed the lives of 11 workers on the Deepwater Horizon semi-submersible Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit. That accident in the Gulf of Mexico has been referred to as the largest environmental disaster in U.S. history.

That’s not the story told in Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand’s screenplay. Why bother with ecological damage, corporations deftly evading any real consequences and the loss of life when they can simply craft another Mark Wahlberg action adventure?

Wahlberg plays Mike Williams, a Transocean chief electronics technician, set for another long stint aboard the Deepwater Horizon. He joins installation manager Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell in the lovably gruff roles he’s perfected at this stage of his career) and positioning officer Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez).


Casting accuracy was not as big a priority as it was for Sully. This casting would be akin to having Channing Tatum play Donald Trump in a 2016 campaign biopic. It seems more than a little disingenuous to do a movie about real people and then glam them up for the sake of selling tickets.

Wahlberg has matured as an actor. This is the type of role that a decade ago he could only play in one straightforward, earnest manner. Now, he’s able to add layers to his performance. There’s a little humor and gentleness mixed in to such standard everyman tough guy persona.


Most of that comes in his interaction with Kate Hudson, who plays Mike’s loving wife, Felicia. But Wahlberg also plays off co-stars like Dylan O’Brien just as easily. BP execs, led by the smooth talking John Malkovich (with an impressive Southern accent), want to drill yesterday. Jimmy prefers a more cautious approach. There’s a lot of oil rigging jargon that probably gets points for accuracy, but none for accessibility. Basically, the gas guys are greedy. Their rush to get the project moving sets up the perfect storm for a massive disaster.

Helming the film is Peter Berg, whose last voyage at sea was the waterlogged Battleship. Subtlety is not Berg’s forte as he treats the build-up like ominous foreshadowing you’d see in a horror movie. The most obvious is the random bird that smashes against a helicopter en route to Deepwater Horizon. Berg sets up several jump scares as if it to tease the audience of the pending doom. That works on films solely concocted from a writer’s imagination, but there’s something cheap about doing it when it pertains to real people.


Berg, who completed his Michael Bay apprenticeship, favors explosions and spectacle over character development. In Battleship, Berg attempted to bring some realism to a film based on a board game. Here, Berg assumes the audience is only checked in for the explosions.

To that extent, the film delivers. Berg neatly places the audience in the thick of the fiery explosions, muddy water sprays and flying debris. It’s so chaotic that it’s hard to comprehend what’s happening.

Instead, Berg frames the film as another showcase for his Lone Survivor star to be an action hero. The film’s 94-minute runtime actually works to its detriment. That backfires when characters who were briefly introduced are put in harm’s way and it fails to resonate. It’s even worse when characters get killed since there’s no attachment to them. Berg doesn’t help by making them barely distinguishable during the action scenes.


Handled more like a cautionary tale and not a clumsy action film, Deepwater Horizon could have been a compelling drama. Instead, it’s just another disaster movie devoid of charm or a compelling reason to endure it.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Photo Credit: David Lee