The people that brought us “The Wave” and “The Quake” annex another piece of disaster movie real-estate with “The Burning Sea,” a compact, tense and smart oil rig yarn that’s light on melodrama, heavy on facts and heartening in its environmental messaging.
It’s “Deep Water Horizon” without clear-cut villains or swaggering, one-liner-popping heroes. Yes, some of the genre tropes the Scandinavians choose to leave out are missed. But there are things this trilogy of “when things go wrong in a big way” thrillers do that Hollywood might be well-served in copying.
For starters, the Big One, when it comes, won’t likely arrive from space as asteroids or aliens. It could be Earth-bound and natural, with a heavy dose of the Arrogance of Man involved.
“Burning Sea” follows the team that operates a fancy new underwater drone on behalf of the Norwegian oil industry. Sofia (Kristine Kujath Thorp) is young and seriously smitten, but not with the tech support specialist Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen) who keeps Eelie, the articulated, motor-driven eel that she drives that is able to wend its way through undersea oil-rig architecture to spot problems and make or identify fixes. Sofia is in love with single-dad Stian (Henrik Bjelland), a worker on one of the scores of rigs that fuel Norway’s economy by drilling for and pumping oil out from under the North Sea.
One day, Sofia and Arthur are called on an “emergency mission” that the big boss (Bjørn Floberg) won’t disclose to them the particulars of until they’ve signed their Non-Disclosure-Agreements (NDAs).
Sure enough, a rig collapsed and sank. Everybody in a suit is worried about “security” and no one seems that excited when Eelie tracks down and finds a survivor. They have just enough time to take in that video when Sofia sees something far more disturbing. Telling her boss, the aptly-named William Lie (Floberg) gets her nowhere…she thinks.
“Why don’t we leave that to the specialists,” he purrs (in Norwegian with English subtitles).
But before you can say “COVER UP,” we’re treated to a meeting with “specialists” and the government official (Christoffer Staib) in charge of this corner of the economy. Nothing is released to the press, but nothing is covered-up or sugar coated inside that meeting. They’re looking at a calamity, perhaps “something we did ourselves (man-made)” that could skill scores of people and spill “350 times” what the Deepwater Horizon disaster dumped into the Gulf of Mexico.
One can’t help but find refreshing the idea that nobody ducks the awful choices this dilemma presents to every decision maker. Steps are taken, but as is the way of such movies, things don’t go according to plan. I’ll let you guess who needs rescuing and who does that rescuing.
The “Quake” director and “Wave” screenwriter (one of them) strip the movie of a lot of conflicts that a Hollywood story would have jammed-in and any movie that wants to realistically appear “American” in this day and age would have to include.
There are no greedy corporate villains. Culpability is cultural, spread over the entire country that has gotten rich in this environmentally-catastrophic business.
There is no corporate or corporate media pushback, no politicians praising oil and rooting for the sea to catch fire, no Tucker Carlson begging for an apocalypse that he can blame on somebody his overlords want to make the scapegoat.
The Norwegians here are presented in a sort of idealized consensus-building aimed at “the greater good,” the sort of image polishing one usually associates with movies made by and about China.
“The Burning Sea” lacks the pulse-pounding ticking clock to doom of an impending earthquake or a tsunamic bearing down on our heroes, vital in “The Wave” and “The Quake.” Such an element is introduced, but the editing fritters away that edge-of-your-seat excitement, no matter how much the musical score insists it’s coming.
But those shortcomings are papered-over with a few scenes of genuine suspense and performances that go all-in on portraying these folks as slack-jawed at the scale of what they’re dealing with, but professionals ever intent on “working the problem.” Bosses soberly pass on awful news to those impacted by it, and people caught up in the maelstrom may look wild-eyed with fear, and seem manic, but they never panic.
And any time you can top your tale of crisis, calamity and heroism with sacrifice, pathos and a hopeful message, you call that a “win,” in Hollywood or Aelsund.
Rating: PG-13 for peril, some disturbing images, language and brief partial nudity
Cast: Kristine Kujath Thorp, Henrik Bjelland, Rolf Kristian Larsen and Bjørn Floberg
Credits: Directed by John Andreas Andersen, scripted by Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Lars Gudmestad. A Magnolia/Magnet release.
Running time: 1:44