107 min. | PG-13

Wait, what? Based on a true story of real life heroes? Wasn’t the Deepwater Horizon that total cluster-you-know-what of incompetence and corporate greed that spilled an ungodly amount of oil into the Gulf of Mexico? Yes, it is. But this is not that story.

This movie doesn’t even get into the oil spill itself, or the cleanup and longterm impact of what turned out to be the worst US environmental disaster to date. Nope, this is just about the explosion on that offshore oil-drilling rig, in April 2010, and the immediate aftermath for those onboard, most of whom were regular grunts who weren’t to blame for the disaster.

Were they heroes, or just poor schmoes unlucky enough to get caught up in catastrophe? Well, at least some of what we witness Deepwater Horizon’s chief electronics technician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg), do in the hellscape that the rig became definitely qualifies as heroism of the “risking your life to save others” variety. And since director Peter Berg seems to have gone to great lengths to stick to the truth of the events—even having survivors on-set as consultants—let’s presume the other heroic actions also really happened.

Like Berg’s previous film, Lone Survivor—about a calamitous real-life military mission in Afghanistan—Deepwater Horizon is immensely intense and suspenseful even when you know the general outcome. This is disaster filmmaking at its most gripping, yet there’s nothing exploitive or sensationalized about it. Horizon is exhausting partly because it feels real, not exaggerated.

The vessel Deepwater Horizon has something of a science-fiction feel to it. This huge monster of a machine is a boat. It floats. You kinda can’t help but gawp at the awesomeness of it and what it does. The film does an amazing job of explaining the deeply complex and technical work of an offshore oil rig in a clever way: via Williams’ grade-school daughter and her school report on her dad’s job. Using just a can of Coke and a straw, she helps us understand how the Horizon works… and how it can fail. This is an action disaster movie that’s as much about science and engineering as it is about survival—and that’s incredibly cool.

And what we see is downright horrifying. The delicate machine has not been well maintained. If there’s any humor here at all, it’s of the grim kind, as Williams chews out a BP exec (John Malkovich) for how the company refuses to allow time and money for desperately needed maintenance. And it’s all in Wahlberg’s delightful fast-talking style, until he slows down for the conclusion: “money-hungry sons-a-bitches.” BP does not come off well.

The Horizon is already over-budget and over-schedule on its current mission, so there’s a rush to cap off the well so it can move on. The capping is done poorly, there are leaks of methane from the well, and boom.

What comes after that is like Titanic except with mud and fire instead of cold and ice, and with no romance. Deepwater Horizon should be proud to be in its company: Titanic is an amazing film about (among other things) greed and how the little people pay when big companies put profit about all else. (Malkovich’s BP exec gets onto a lifeboat while others are still onboard the Horizon, just like that weasel in Titanic.)

That undersea well might still be leaking oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and BP is still in business. Perhaps in the future, the Deepwater Horizon disaster will be seen as a powerful metaphor for humanity’s arrogance in the same way that the sinking of the Titanic is. Perhaps Peter Berg has created a film literally for the ages.