Blu-ray Review: Deepwater Horizon

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Director Peter Berg's Deepwater Horizon is a chronicle of the disastrous events that led to the total loss of the titular oil drilling rig and the deaths of 11 crew members. This is, of course, a true—and truly tragic—story. For better or worse, Berg stages the briskly-paced, 107-minute film as an action spectacle. Don't look to Horizon for an examination of the reasons Transocean and BP (among other companies) are drilling the ocean floor, nor any opinions on whether they should be. The focus here, after a lot of general exposition during the opening act, is the destruction caused by the catastrophic blowout once the rig's foundation failed.

In other words, besides clearly placing blame on the bureaucrats (chiefly BP's Donald Vidrine, portrayed here by John Malkovich), Berg isn't out to sermonize about the ecological impacts of oil drilling. He presents these companies' activities as, basically, an inescapable component of modern-day living. Someone else can untangle the various arguments for and against our collective reliance on fossil fuels; to do so here would get in the way of the action. Certainly to his credit, Berg keeps the tone somber even as the explosions and gushing muck escalate. The mechanics of his set pieces (and really, once the blowout begins, the entire movie is one gigantic set piece) are "action movie"-based, but without the addition of comic relief or melodrama that popcorn flicks typically add. 
 
Deepwater Horizon john malkovich.jpg All things considered, it's a solidly-crafted disaster epic that seems to capture the grimy, dirty realities of life about an oil rig even before the danger begins. Despite the presence of big names like Mark Wahlberg (as engineer Mike Williams) and Kurt Russell (as supervisor "Mr. Jimmy" Harrell), the early portions of the film eschew gloss. Much like Paul Greengrass did with Captain Phillips, Berg seeks to establish a workaday environment. As various fail-safe systems are tested, and budget overruns and scheduling concerns are bandied about, we see the typical 'cold war' waged between those concerned with the "bottom line" and those concerned with workplace safety.

Really the biggest detriment to Deepwater Horizon is that, as conceived by screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand, it doesn't really work as a narrative. They couldn't very well just start cold with the blowout (hence the early exposition), but the action that follows is really the film's raison d'ĂȘtre. Otherwise you're better off watching a documentary about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, like The Great Invisible. Or at least watch both. Berg's recreation puts you in the thick of it, bludgeoning viewers with sensory overload in an attempt to convey a fraction of an ounce of what the workers experienced, while Margaret Brown's documentary reaches further into the greater implications surrounding the whole catastrophe (and, incidentally, manages to do so in less time; the doc runs 92 minutes). 

Deepwater Horizon Kurt Russell.jpg Speaking of sensory overload, Lionsgate's Blu-ray is simply magnificent from an A/V standpoint, with a Dolby TrueHD 7.1 (or Atmos, for those so equipped) that is noisily powerful enough to leave you numb by the time the credits roll. There's also an uncommonly good selection of special features, including a multi-part 'behind the scenes' series called "Beyond the Horizon" (totaling 51 minutes). "Captain of the Rig" (18 minutes) deals specifically with director Peter Berg and his motivations for tackling this project. (Both of those segments are exclusive to Blu-ray & 4K UltraHD; the following features are found on those HD formats as well as standard DVD.) "The Fury of the Rig" (27 minutes) takes us even further inside the doomed vessel. "Deepwater Surveillance" (18 minutes) spotlights the effects work, captured via raw video footage. 
 
rsz_1deepwater_horizon_bd.jpg Additionally, select-scene commentary by Peter Berg is available through the "Deepwater Horizon VR" app, via iOS and Android platforms. A compatible VR viewer is required in order to enjoy these features in 360 video mode. Of the three scenes, two are only accessible using "audio recognition while viewing Deepwater Horizon." Full disclosure: I'm basing these notes on the Lionsgate press materials, not personal experience (while it might be extremely cool for many viewers, it seems like accessing special features is beginning to require an inordinate amount of effort in some cases).

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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