DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016) Struggles to Stay Afloat

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deepwater-horizon

There’s a fine line between having a compelling story to tell, and telling a compelling story.

The recent movie SULLY (2016) is a perfect example of the latter.  It had a compelling story to tell, and director Clint Eastwood knew how to tell it.

DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016), on the other hand, tells the story of the 2010 explosion on the offshore drilling rig Deepwater Horizon, an event that led to the worst oil spill in U.S. history.  It’s a memorable story, but the movie struggles to tell it.

The film opens with Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) at home with his family, getting ready to say farewell to them for a few weeks while he returns to work on the Deepwater Horizon.  He’s enjoying time with his wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and their daughter, and if you’ve seen the film’s trailer, you’ve seen the cute conversation they all share over their breakfast table.  It actually made for a very effective trailer, but here in the film it only adds to a rather slow beginning.

The purpose of these early family scenes is to personalize the story.  Rather than follow the lives of many people on the rig, the film chooses to follow mostly Mike, and to juxtapose his scenes with those of the panicked Felicia back home.  This really isn’t all that effective, and sadly reduces Kate Hudson to being in a series of reaction shots where she doesn’t do much more than look worried.

So Mike goes off to work and meets up with his boss Jimmy Harrell (Kurt Russell) and co-worker Andrea Fleytas (Gina Rodriguez).  Once on the rig, Jimmy immediately butts heads with members of the company that owns Deepwater Horizon led by a man named Vidrine (John Malkovich) who has been cutting costs by skimping on routine safety checks because he believes the Deepwater Horizon will work fine without them.  Jimmy, of course, is protective of his crew and refuses to proceed without the necessary precautionary tests.

Unfortunately, Jimmy’s tests are too little too late, as the company had let things slide so badly, that in the middle of one of the tests, the equipment is compromised and there is a gush of mud which overheats the engines and leads to a catastrophic explosion.

DEEPWATER HORIZON gets off to a sluggish start, and even though I was interested in this story, because I knew what it was about, the film didn’t grab my attention.  The early scenes with Mike and his family were okay, and the ensuing arguments between Jimmy and the company were certainly interesting, but there’s a whole rig full of people, and we don’t really get to know many of the characters at all.  Before the explosion, most of the exposition was simple and dull.

Once the explosion occurs, things pick up, but that being said, for a disaster movie, none of the scenes really wowed me.  Most of the action occurs at a rapid fire pace, and the camera is in close, making it very difficult to see what’s going on.  It also doesn’t help that the only character we’ve really gotten to know is Mike, so when the camera is on him, things are captivating, but whenever the action follows someone else, it’s like following a random red shirt on an episode of STAR TREK.

Director Peter Berg does an undistinguished job capturing the action.  The film is begging for an establishing shot, seeing the scene unfold from a distance so we can have a sense of the scope of the tragedy.  While there are some shots of Deepwater Horizon burning, for the bulk of the action, the camera is in way too close and it’s difficult to discern just what exactly is happening.  There’s plenty of mud shooting around, plenty of men slipping and sliding, explosions, fire everywhere, people scrambling, but left out of the whole thing were my emotions.  I didn’t know the people in this tragedy, and the movie suffered for it.

The film also does little with the actual Coast Guard rescue of these folks.  We hardly see what happens at all.  In SULLY, the rescue was one of the movie’s high points.  Not so here.

The screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand was meh.  I didn’t really like the background story of Mike and his family, as it didn’t add anything here.  Again, to compare to SULLY, in that film, Tom Hanks’ character converses with his worried wife over the phone on several occasions, but those conversations moved the plot forward, as they gave Hanks’ character opportunities to question his actions.  The scenes here between Mike and his wife Felicia do not move the plot forward.  They only stall the story.

The dialogue was flat and uninspiring, very generic, except for the one sequence where Mike gets in Andrea’s face and really lays it on her as to why they are going to survive.  It’s also Wahlberg’s best moment in the movie.  The best dialogue belongs to Kurt Russell’s Jimmy, but once the explosion hits, Jimmy takes a back seat to Mike in the story.

Matthew Michael Carnahan was also one of the screenwriters on WORLD WAR Z (2013), a film I liked a bit more than DEEPWATER HORIZON.

Mark Wahlberg is fine here as Mike.  It’s the type of role Wahlberg can play in his sleep, at this point.  His performance is good enough to carry this movie, except that he really doesn’t have a lot of potent scenes in this one.  His best scene comes near the end when he pushes the panicked Andrea to survive.

Actually, my favorite performance in the movie belonged to Kurt Russell as Jimmy.  He really brings Jimmy to life, and you feel from the get-go that Jimmy takes his job seriously and that he will not compromise the lives of his crew.  We’ve been seeing more of Russell in the movies lately, and I hope this trend continues.  The only drawback is that most of Russell’s screen time here occurs before the explosion.

Kate Hudson is largely wasted in a throwaway role as Mike’s wife Felicia.  John Malkovich is okay as one of the cost-cutting meanies from the company, but he’s not really in this one a whole lot.

On the contrary, Gina Rodriguez is very good as Andrea Fleytas, the woman who helms the controls on Deepwater Horizon.  The rest of the cast are little more than interchangeable cardboard cutouts.

The strongest thing DEEPWATER HORIZON has to offer is the true story on which it is based.  This is reiterated during the movie’s end credits, when we see the names and photographs of the men killed during the explosion.

But source material alone isn’t enough to make a powerful movie.  A film needs a strong storytelling component, generated by creative directing and a sharp script. DEEPWATER HORIZON has neither.

As such, in spite of its gripping story, it struggles to stay afloat.

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SAN ANDREAS (2015) Weak Entry in Disaster Movie Canon

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san_andreas_movie_poster_1MOVIE REVIEW:  SAN ANDREAS (2015)

By Michael Arruda

 

SAN ANDREAS has more faults than— well, you know.

Yep, SAN ANDREAS is a new disaster film about a powerful earthquake that erupts along the San Andreas Fault— get that opening joke now?— and rocks California, specifically San Francisco.  It has more in common with recent disaster movies like THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW (2004) and 2012 (2009) than with the disaster pics from the 1970s, like EARTHQUAKE (1974).  Of course, the truth is most of these movies were not very good, as the scripts were often pretty bad, as was the case with EARTHQUAKE.  To that end, SAN ANDREAS fits right in.

In SAN ANDREAS, Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) is a scientist who has discovered a way to predict earthquakes.  Unfortunately for him, the largest earthquake ever recorded decides to occur on the same day he makes this discovery, and so while he scrambles to get the word out, it’s not exactly, “hey, there’s going to be an earthquake next week.”  It’s more like “There’s going to be an earthquake in the next 60 seconds. RUN!!!!!!”

Meanwhile, Ray (Dwayne Johnson) is a firefighter/rescue worker/helicopter pilot in Los Angeles who leads a crack team of rescuers who perform amazing feats of bravery.  The film opens with one of these feats, as Ray and his team rescue a young woman whose car zipped off the road and is hanging precariously from a cliff.  Of course, this young woman is seen texting while driving and paying no attention whatsoever to the road, and so I was actually hoping that Ray’s rescue would fail.  But alas, it’s Dwayne Johnson, he’s the hero, and he saves the girl.  What a surprise.

While Ray’s career is thriving, his home life is not.  His wife Emma (Carla Gugino) is divorcing him, leaving him for an ultra-rich new boyfriend Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffud).  Ray does enjoy a good relationship with his twenty-something daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario), but his scars run deep as his other daughter drowned years earlier, and Ray was unable to save her, a fact that has haunted him since and strained his marriage to Emma.

Once the earthquake hits, Blake finds herself amidst the rubble in San Francisco, and Ray decides to fly his chopper from L.A. to San Francisco to rescue his daughter, and of course, his estranged wife Emma joins him as well.  The rest of the film follows their efforts to save Blake.  So, if you’re interested in what happens to the rest of the folks in San Francisco, you’ve come to the wrong movie, since SAN ANDREAS isn’t interested in anyone else but Ray and his family.  It’s as if they’re the only victims of the earthquake.

That’s my first problem with SAN ANDREAS.  By focusing only on Ray and his family, the film loses any grand scope it may have had, and it simply doesn’t work as a disaster movie.  It’s about a massive earthquake, the biggest ever recorded, and yet we never see the results of this destruction.  Oh, thanks to the CGI special effects, we do see buildings collapsing, a humongous Tsunami crashing through San Francisco, and the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, but we don’t feel the extent of the destruction because there’s one key element missing: the human element.  We don’t have any other characters to follow in this movie.  It’s about Ray and his family and that’s pretty much it.

For this kind of story to work, these main characters need to be compelling and interesting in order to hold our attention throughout the movie, but they are neither.  Instead, they are dull and boring.

The film does give us a few scenes with Paul Giamatti’s character, but he’s away from the action, and he’s even more boring than Ray’s family.

In the opening sequence, we meet Ray and his rescue team.  I thought perhaps this film would be about this team doing their thing to rescue folks during the earthquake.  Not so.  Once the earthquake happens, and Ray learns that his daughter is in danger, he basically highjacks the helicopter and decides on his own without checking with anyone in authority that he’s flying to San Francisco.  Nice going, buddy.  What about the people in Los Angeles who need rescuing?

 

The characters here are cliché and dull.  I like Dwayne Johnson a lot, but this role is about as cliché as you can get.  Ray is a good guy, don’t get me wrong, a guy who doesn’t deserve to have his wife leave him, and in this movie, because he’s such a nice guy, his wife won’t leave him.  Instead, she joins him in the helicopter and together they set out to rescue their daughter in yet another unrealistic story where the estranged couple realizes they shouldn’t have separated, and everything’s better if they stick together.  Ugh.  I enjoyed Johnson much, much more in last year’s HERCULES (2014).

Carla Gugino is OK as Ray’s wife Emma, even though I found the character terribly annoying.  Alexandra Daddario is also just okay as their daughter Blake.  Neither character was all that interesting.

Blake is befriended and rescued by a young British man Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his little brother Ollie (Art Parkinson), two characters and performances that are also average.

Paul Giamatti’s scientist character is hopelessly boring, and Giamatti overacts to compensate, and Ioan Gruffod’s rich boyfriend Daniel is probably the most clichéd of all the characters.  The wealthy “other man” who conveniently turns out to be a wimp and a weasel, making it oh-so-easy for wifey Emma to go back to her hero hubby Ray.  Gag.

The worst culprit though in what makes SAN ANDREAS a bad movie is the screenplay by Carlton Cuse, a man with some decent writing credits, as he’s written episodes for the TV series LOST and BATES MOTEL.  Here, the story is way too limited, focusing only on Ray and his family.  Without other characters, and more importantly, other casualties, the earthquake never seems as deadly as it’s supposed to be.

The dialogue is flat out awful and so sappy you’ll cringe.  When Ray speaks to Blake on the phone and tells her he’s on his way to rescue her, and she hears her mother’s voice in the background, she asks, “Dad?  How is it that you and mom are together?”  Which of course prompts Ray and Emma to gaze warmly into each other’s eyes.

While the film is slick and polished, and there are special effects galore, director Brad Peyton doesn’t really craft any scenes that are dramatically chilling or awe inspiring.  The closest he comes to pulling this off is the tsunami scene, where the great wave crashes down on San Francisco, but even this could have been more frightening and spectacular.

The whole film just lacks that sense of awe-inspiring dread. Part of the problem is I thought the special effects looked rather cartoonish.  Now, I admit, I saw this film in 2D, and it is available in 3D and IMAX prints.  Perhaps those look better.  It was all rather average looking in 2D.

SAN ANDREAS is a weak entry in the disaster movie canon.  It lacks scope and vision, its earthquake isn’t depicted as anything earth shattering (heh heh), and its characters are cliché and dull.  What could have been a rousing film adventure, a story about humanity trying to survive a horrible disaster, is reduced to a predictable plot, a tale of one family’s will to stay together, amidst a powerful earthquake.

How the rest of the west coast fares is anyone’s guess.

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