I’ve often thought that more filmmakers should sit and properly watch the first half of Alien. Ridley Scott’s masterpiece is rightly lauded for its tension, for its outstanding production design, and for its ability to genuinely creep under your skin. But one of the key reasons, for me, that it feels so special is that it does so much quality foundation work with its characters. That an extraordinary situation is made to feel ordinary, by a bunch of people moaning and grumbling about everyday things, rather than talking in philosophic soliloquies, as too many modern characters seem to do.
Deepwater Horizon director Peter Berg, I think, has watched Alien many times, and he really gets it. You only have to watch either the film or television series of Friday Night Lights to get that he understands the importance of character, as do screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand. As such, a substantive initial chunk of Deepwater Horizon is spent with human beings. It pays real dividends.
Notwithstanding a slightly clunky Basil Exposition moment, where a little girl explains just what her daddy does for a living ahead of a school show and tell, the film studiously puts things in place for us to care about. We also, in the early stages, get a shaky cam rumpy pumpy scene, a signal of what lies ahead (the shaky cam, not the…, well, you get it).
Mark Wahlberg, then, plays Mike Williams, who we meet as he’s about to embark on a 21 day stay on the Deepwater Horizon rig, just off the coast of the US. Just watching him and his crew – and it’s an ego-less ensemble piece, this – go through the motions of physically getting to the rig gives a strong indication as to the direction the film wants to take, with small details mattering, and the monotony (to them, not us) of the routine clear. The script is also happy to spout some Apollo 13-esque necessary technobabble, that effectively gets across that everyone on screen knows what they’re talking about, even if we don’t always.
Again, in this instance, that’s a good thing. Deepwater Horizon is happy to treat its audience with a modicum of intelligence, and also spend time dwelling on the parts of the story that the audience isn’t so familiar with. After all, the explosion and subsequent large scale pollution was a story writ large across 24 hour news channels less than a decade ago. The characters at the heart of it? That’s where the film spends the bulk of its time. Take, for instance, Kurt Russell’s Jimmy, a man who priorities safety, pushing heavily back against the demands of BP, the mass corporation pumping millions into the rig. Russell, of course, is excellent, and he helps shine a light on a human being at the heart of the tragic.
BP’s attitude – and heck, I’d wager many people who see the film will think twice before pulling up onto a BP forecourt – is represented most keenly by John Malkovich as Vidrine, an under your skin passive aggressive corporate cipher, who presents reasonableness on the surface, with little but the bottom line underneath. Malkovich, as you’d expect, is brilliant, and really quite chilling. And Berg squeezes immense tension out of the assorted stand-offs that happen, even though you pretty much know how things are going to turn out.
Surprisingly, Berg and his team hold the big physical moments until far later in the film than you might expect, instead building up characters to care about, and a very effective sense of foreboding. For a good hour, the movie is really excellent.
It only loses its footing a little when things ultimately go wrong. Then, the shaky cam goes into overdrive – although it may have felt more noticeable as I saw the film on an IMAX screen – and, more crucially, you begin to lose sense of the characters. Trying to place who is talking and where they are on the rig gets trickier as the screen fills with fire and the speakers around you scream out noise. The sheer spectacle is undeniable, but the human touch is, temporarily, lost. We know bad things are going on, it’s just often not clear who they’re happening to.
The film does, however, does regain its focus, not least with a small but appreciated moment ahead of the full end credits. It also lingers in the mind long after the credits have rolled, not just for its ability to recall horrific real life events, but crucially for exploring so many human stories in the midst of it all. There’s some really excellent film-making here, drawing comparisons with the work of Paul Greengrass in places. And there’s also a retelling of a tragedy, that respects those at the heart of it. It’s a respectful, very often compelling retelling of an awful, awful event.
Deepwater Horizon is in UK cinemas from September 29th.
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