Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Deepwater Horizon’ is transcendental Hollywood cinema

A scene from in "Deepwater Horizon." (Lionsgate)
A scene from in ‘Deepwater Horizon.’ (Lionsgate)

There is a budding propensity among cinephiles to shame modern day big budget Hollywood studio system productions.

Although the standards that make a film “good” are arbitrary, it’s hard to argue against one with brilliant dialogue, acting, cinematography and direction that raises endorphins with big bangs and booms. On the other hand, niche-audience directors such as Nicolas Winding Refn frequently discuss the influence of Hollywood films on their works (in the case of Winding Refn, a love for the films of Michael Bay).

So what is it that they are seeing, and what is it that viewers may be missing?

The answer is potential. Behind the bangs and booms, spiritually depleted plotlines and painstaking narrative paces are some of the greatest technical film experts in the world. Yet the studios paying these experts have a firm standardized vision that demands a specific product. When mega-productions repeatedly exploit a viewer’s senses, it creates the impression that visionary stimuli can stand alone to create satisfactory entertainment.

Will the day come that a big-blockbuster budgeted Hollywood picture can demonstrate beautiful technical expertise while having meaningful narrative?

‘Deepwater Horizon,’ the most recent feature from director Peter Berg, has given us hope that this day is soon around the corner. The film centers around the 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, a real life earth-shattering event considered one of the largest environmental disasters in United States history. The ramifications of spewing oil into the environment is not the film’s focus, however.

While the environmental consequences received major media coverage following the disaster, “Deepwater Horizon” explores the stories of those who fought to survive on the rig once the explosions began. According to Berg, “not only did these men not cause the oil spill…but these men actually died trying to prevent the oil spill.” His film asserts that while it is justifiable to feel disdain toward oil corporations such as BP, workers who fought to save lives on the rig deserve recognition for their heroics.

From the outset, one could speculate that “Deepwater Horizon” was destined to fall into the same conventional tropes of many other major-budgeted Hollywood productions. Berg had already helmed the largely panned “Battleship.” Later, it was revealed that the set built for “Deepwater Horizon” was one of the largest in film history. Throw Mark Wahlberg into the mix and it seemed the film could have easily turned into one big machismo-infected flop.

“Deepwater Horizon” proves every one of those predictions wrong. The film transcends conventional Hollywood cinema by using the power of a clean cut million-dollar spectacle to bring a heightened documentary-like realism to an event that is hard to even picture occurring.

Imagine for a moment every bit of destruction that can take place throughout a drilling rig as it erupts. Nuts and bolts bursting forth from ground pressure. Fires spreading throughout the megaship’s every crevice. Torrid smoke covering eyes and straining lungs. If thinking about being there is overwhelming, letting your mind succumb to the movie’s immersive images and frantic pace will for a moment place you there in real life.

Using special effects to take events out of the abstract is not the only reason why the film is a step toward a more well-rounded form of Hollywood entertainment. Instead of allowing spectacle to serve as its own entity or character within the film, “Deepwater Horizon” uses it as a tool to raise the dramatic heft of the stories of the workers stuck between the claws of hellfire.

As lead technician Mike Williams (Wahlberg) risks his life jolting around the decomposing rig in order to bring his fellow workers to safety, it is not fire we focus on, but rather his valor. By the film’s conclusion, the traumatic experiences from which the rig workers barely escaped leaves the audience with a newfound perspective on an event that occurred more than six years ago.

A key factor in this film’s visual and narrative success can be attributed to its director. Berg, who has expressed interest in these kinds of “American folk stories,” found an undeniable inspiration in the bravery of Mike Williams onboard the Deepwater Horizon. Unlike a large portion of blockbuster features, “Deepwater Horizon” was directed by a man who felt deeply passionate about the film’s subject matter and real-life characters.

So is passion the key to a better Hollywood picture? “Deepwater Horizon” suggests that it is.

William Plotnick can be reached at [email protected].

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