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Oil. We use it every day. It fills our gas tanks. Warms our homes. Even makes up the roads we drive. In Deepwater Horizon, the coveted resource turns on man 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana, becoming a nightmarish force that ends the life of 11 crew members onboard the fated vessel and torments the slurry of survivors racing to escape its scarlet abyss. With all the fury of a possessed malevolent entity, the routine drill site turns to fire and brimstone one fated evening, Dante’s inferno is brought roaring to life, and a brave few must do all they can to save as many as they can.

An easy contender for the worst day at the office ever, April 10, 2010 saw what oil rig workers casually refer to as “mud” transform into a monolithic demon spewing fire as if from the bowels of hell itself. The explosion was visible from 40 miles away and resulted in the greatest oil spill in US history. For those not familiar with the events (where have you been hiding?), Deepwater Horizon is a necessary history lesson that ably dives into the both the mechanics and politicking of oil rig operations (also big explosions!!!), blithely pointing its finger at the greedy few responsible for such gross diligence. For those that are (welcome back everyone), Deepwater Horizon manages to compellingly frame a headline story as a thoughtful disaster thriller. An uncommon feat indeed and one Peter Berg pulls off with relative ease and admirable aplomb.deepwaterhorizonssr4

Mark Wahlberg leads the action as Mike Williams, a lead electrical engineer onboard the Deepwater Horizon, and a real down to earth dude. Wahlberg is confident in the role, finding a nice middle ground between his swaggering action hero bravado and simple everyman appeal. The slightest of paunches clues us into the later. That his heroics ultimately come down to his spirit rather than his sinew is a nice change of pace for the performer who more often than not is playing two shades shy of bright. Under pressure, Williams is a cairn in the hellfire, assisting those most in need, doing his utmost to save the lives of his friends, peers and company men alike.

In real life, Williams became the face of the Deepwater disaster after giving a detailed account of his near-miss escape that had him jump over ten stories to “safety” below. The heroics of Williams and other crew members Mr. Jimmy (Kurt Russell firing on all cylinders) and Andrea Fleets (Gina Rodriguez) coming to odds with the greed and incompetence of BP upper management – who continue to push their monetary agenda forward without proper regulatory actions despite ample warnings of the “adverse effects” – prove sufficient inspiration for Berg and his scriptwriters to sink their teeth into. They barely stop short of the jugular.

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John “Scared as a Cat” Malkovich absolutely hisses his way through a Louisiana accent as a particularly careless corporate penny-pincher and is all the more inhuman – which the role none too subtly demands – for it. Russell is his antithesis. When the initial explosion rips the vessel to shreds, he’s tucked into a warm shower. Shrapnel rains sideways with the force of a charging rhino. Temporarily blinded, disoriented and littered with shards of glass, he nonetheless attempts to make his way to cabin to do damage control. He’s a certified BA and Berg has no trouble pointing to the heroes and making sure you know friend from foe.

The film written by Matthew Michael Carnahan (World War Z) and Matthew Sand (Ninja Assassin) expertly grafts well-defined human elements to its awing spectacle and roaring IMAX sound, resulting in a picture that is as visually and aurally immersive as it is emotionally involving. The script’s ability to keep a multitude of balls in the air – introducing us to the warring factions of blue and white collar workers aboard and the growing distrust between parties, giving us a quick tour of the inner workings of the station, providing visual aids (a shaken up Coke can is plugged with a straw then filled with honey, then explodes; an obvious early warning) – all help to foster a general sense of unease. This uneasiness percolates; a slow cooker full of soda and Mentos; until everything goes boom. When the incandescent cacophony is unleashed, it doesn’t let up until the tearful credits roll.

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Cinematographer Enrique Chediak (127 Hours) captures the inferno from every angle, assigning it a fearsome quality with the towering conflagration almost emanating from the screen. By the time the Deepwater Horizon is thoroughly ablaze, it’s as if we have stepped into a man-made Hades and Chediak’s fiery shots help breathe terrifying life into the flames. The shell-shocked faces of the various toilers charred as if beneath Pompeii’s maw. A harrowing experience to behold, Deepwater Horizon – even if one that I will likely never revisit. For just as that simple can of Coke was perturbed by all the action, I too was left shaken.

CONCLUSION: Robust visual effects – including an explosion count that would make Michael Bay cream himself – and a pants-shitting soundscape pair with an intelligent, emotionally honest and sobering dramatic account of the ‘Deepwater Horizon’ incident to help give human face to a horrific real life tragedy. Consider IMAX a must.

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