“Deepwater Horizon” begins with a tracking shot along a drilling pipe plunging seemingly forever downward into the sea. It mimics the opening of “Star Wars,” when Darth Vader’s massive Star Destroyer passes overhead.
Both movies share inhospitable environments and, in certain respects, similarly callous, destructive villains: the Galactic Empire and the smug, greedy supervisors of British Petroleum, whose negligence caused the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.
The nerve-racking and uncannily convincing “Deepwater Horizon” incorporates these corporate vandals into its tale of the 2010 disaster that polluted the Gulf of Mexico with 210 million gallons of oil. But the story really concerns the heroic efforts of everyday workers attempting to survive the catastrophe.
“Anything that big ought to be made by God,” one of the BP suits exclaims as he’s choppered over to the half-billion dollar structure. This semi-submersible offshore drilling rig sits 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana, operated by 126 crew members.
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Also arriving for a three-week shift is Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), the chief electronics technician whose 10-year-old daughter (Stella Allen) accurately sums up the dangers of her dad’s profession: “That oil is a monster like the mean old dinosaur the oil used to be.”
The crew includes Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez), obsessed with vintage cars and charged with piloting the Horizon. (Yes, the colossal rig is actually a ship, not a fixed platform.) They’re led by crew chief Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) — known to everyone as Mister Jimmy — who saunters and speaks as if he were the sheriff of Dodge City in a past life.
All three of these real-life characters find themselves at odds with real-life BP executive Donald Vidrine (John Malkovich), eerily evocative of comedian Bill Hader’s Cajun-heavy impression of political commentator James Carville. Harrell’s priority is safety; Vidrine’s is making up for the fact they’re 43 days behind schedule.
Aggravating the situation is the condition of the Horizon. For such a high-tech contraption, the rig sure is jury-rigged. A floating indictment of cost-cutting oversight. Not even the batteries in the smoke detectors work.
Once the geysers and fireballs commence, the movie functions like a nightmarish cross between “The Poseidon Adventure” and “The Towering Inferno,” where the characters must overcome all manner of challenges.
Director Peter Berg (“Lone Survivor,” also starring Wahlberg) orchestrates such sequences for maximum impact. Despite mud, liquid, flames, gas, shrapnel and even oil-soaked pelicans presenting peril, the images never look like CGI. (The filmmakers reportedly built sets to mimic the major sections of the oil rig at 85 percent scale.)
What primes this rousing third act is the naturalistic tone established early on by Berg and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand (who based their tale on a New York Times article by David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul). We know the rhythms of the blue-collar workers and their duties; we have brief glimpses into their personal lives. More importantly, their humanity gets revealed.
Then Berg patiently fuels the tension. Calamity is foreshadowed with throwaway details: the spewing Coke can Williams uses to demonstrate for his daughter the mechanics of his job, or the magenta tie that Harrell berates a BP official for wearing because it’s the same color as the rig’s alarm monitors.
Many of these moments (especially depictions of the onboard technical procedures) are so persuasive that they could be culled from a documentary about the event. This is one of those blockbusters where authenticity propels the action.
“Deepwater Horizon” doesn’t drill into any deeper truths. And that’s OK. It’s content to be an in-the-moment adventure with just enough specific condemnation of BP to fan the flames of social justice.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated PG-13. Time: 1:47.