There are times in the first half of Deepwater Horizon, a film about the 2010 oil rig disaster, when unless you've brought your PhD in petroleum geology or years of experience as a deep sea driller to the cinema, you will understand none of what the characters are discussing.

It will not really matter. They sound convincing. The movie does too. Sounds it, looks it, feels it.

In its own way, it's quite a remarkable film. It's a spectacle-driven disaster movie that isn't pure escapism. It's got wanton destruction by the barrelful, but it makes every life - or death - count.

Kurt Russell and Mark Wahlberg start in the film Deepwater Horizon. Photo / Warner Pictures
Kurt Russell and Mark Wahlberg start in the film Deepwater Horizon. Photo / Warner Pictures

You might even think of the film as the anti-Titanic with this doing for oil rigs what that one did for cruise liners.


After all, a man and a woman do end up stranded on a deck, high above the water with a decision to make. Just for icy seawater substitute blazing oil fire. For romance, substitute blue collar workplace camaraderie. For hubris, well, no substitute is needed really.

How effective it is might be surprising given that it's a big-budget Hollywood disaster movie starring (and produced by) Mark Wahlberg as yet another all-American every-guy. He is directed, as he was Afghanistan war film Lone Survivor by Peter Berg, whose movies tend to shout "U!S!A!".

Inevitably, it does do some big budget Hollywood disaster movie things. Like give Wahlberg character a terribly cute home life with wife Kate Hudson and precocious daughter whose school show-and-tell on the day he flies out to the rig is about her father's job. It comes complete with Coke can demonstration of what happens if oil wells aren't capped properly.

The fizzy drink fountain is one of many bits of unsubtle foreshadowing of the disaster, even before we've made it to the rig some 40 miles off the Louisiana Coast.

But it's handy lesson to keep you afloat when the characters are swimming in jargon, worrying about negative pressure tests, the annulus, red-zoning gauges and kill lines.

That's what Deepwater Horizon is most interested in, the mechanics of what went wrong followed by the survival story of how 115 out of 126 on board survived.

That's not to say the film, which is based on a New York Times story, doesn't have something to say about the reasons behind the disaster. After all, just casting John Malkovich as Donald Vidrine, a British Petroleum manager who was later charged with manslaughter for negligence over safety tests, might suggest he will be the villain of the piece. And then he opens his mouth and all but confirms it.

Malkovich makes for one genuinely snaky sonofabitch as the company man pressuring the rig crew to cut corners to get the well pumping.

He's neatly countered by Kurt Russell as "Mr" Jimmy, the rig boss, and Wahlberg as electronics engineer Mike Williams who are already fighting a losing battle about the maintenance of the platform even before there are disturbing rumblings from below.

It's a tense time waiting for one of those rumblings from three miles down to turn Deepwater Horizon into its own floating towering inferno.

When it does it is certainly mighty impressive. Despite the CGI excesses of his last maritime movie Battleship, Berg's efforts here look worryingly authentic, as if like he's napalmed his set and charred a few cast members while he's at it.

It's an impressive piece of work, one which is riveting for its grim spectacle and straightforward storytelling.

Yes, there is much more that can be said about the catastrophe than this movie does. But the great disaster that was Deepwater Horizon now has a great disaster movie to go with it.

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, John Malkovich, Gina Rodriguez
Director: Peter Berg
Rating: M (mature themes and coarse language)
Running time: 107 mins
Verdict: Gripping all-too-real disaster movie