Director – John Andreas Andersen – 2022 – Norway – Cert. 12 – 104m
An underwater technician attempts to rescue her lover who is trapped and probably dead on an oil rig amidst impending ecological disaster – out on digital on Monday, May 30th
The Norwegian title translates literally as North Sea, so renaming the film The Burning Sea makes it sound more dramatic and ups the ante considerably. That increased selling point comes at a price, though. Instead of an oil rig disaster movie, you’re now expecting a sea on fire movie which doesn’t happen ’til the last reel. Still, director Andersen’s films include the impressive disaster movie The Quake (2018) while the writing team of Harald Rosenløw-Eeg (The Quake, 2018; The Wave, Roar Uthaug, 2015) and Lars Gudmestad (Headhunters, Morten Tyldum, 2011) looks promising enough. Unlike those films, however, this one lapses fairly quickly into cliché.
It spends its first 10 minutes largely on romantic drama with Sofia (Kristine Kujath Thorp from the wonderful Ninjababy, Yngvild Sve Flikke, 2021) content to be living her life with lover Stian (Henrik Bjelland) and his pre-teen son Odin (Nils Elias Olsen) at a distance rather than living together permanently with them. “I have my life and he has his,” she says. Now, this might sound like it’s breaking with convention, but the screenplay treats the pair as a couple and plays out as if they were actually living together.
Sofia and her colleague Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen) operate a sort of high tech underwater robot snake with a camera at both ends. She makes a first reel bet with him that, in their test tank, she can operate it to perform a series of tasks in under 30 seconds, a wager she loses when it suffers damage bumping into an obstacle. Yet when the robot snake is brought into play in the main plot, in a real life underwater disaster scenario, it encounters no such problems whatsoever. So what was this wager about, then?
After a barbecue sequence, where Sofia predictably enough abandons Arthur (who is less than enthusiastic about such social gatherings) for potential passion in the kitchen with Stian, she, Arthur and the snake are summoned by Saga oil company executive William Lie (Bjørn Floberg) for a job requiring they both sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). Having signed, they send the snake down to an unexpectedly, suddenly, recently sunken oil rig to see if any of the crew are still alive trapped in air-pockets. Sure enough, the snake, which can open doors for access, finds a man alive, which proves a traumatic experience for all concerned.
Their camera footage however indicates a giant underwater fissure causing oil to seep out of the sea bed and cause a massive slick. Cue Lie and his team deciding to shut down dozens of rigs operating over a huge area. Wouldn’t you know it, Stian just happens to work on the one of these which has a faulty valve that can’t be shut down from the computerised control centre like all the others. Realising his on-site manager Ronny has his hands full evacuating everyone, he volunteers to internally descend the platform leg shaft and shut off the valve manually. When water starts to flood the shaft, he can’t get out in time for the helicopter, which has to take off before the helipad tilts and falls into the ocean.
The company has no way of getting him out, in the unlikely event he’s still alive, so Sofia takes matters into her own hands and has a helicopter team take her out to the rig to rescue Stian, should he be alive. Arthur goes with her, refusing to let her do this on her own… Before being informed of her illicit rescue attempt, Lie with approval from oil and energy minister Skagemo (Christoffer Staib) and the Norwegian pm (unseen) decide to ignite the massive oil spill to prevent the environmental tragedy that would ensue should the slick reach vast areas of coastline. So suddenly, Sofia and co. finds themselves confronted with the now-eponymous burning sea.
It all holds the attention once it gets going, the snake-camera technology is impressive and the working lives and conditions of the oil company people onshore and crews on rigs feel convincing enough, as do the effects – oil rig collapses are impressively staged and the sea on fire sequence at the end looks and feels terrifyingly real. A particularly clever plot twist towards the end tackles the impending question, exactly how do you get off an oil rig in the middle of a burning sea?
In addition, a sub-plot about talking to the son Odin about the fact his dad might be about to die in a tragedy at sea is well-handled, with Ane Skumsvoll as human resources lady Berit adding to an already strong cast.
Overall, however, this is nowhere near as impressive as Andersen’s earlier directorial effort The Quake (or, for that matter, Headhunters, on which he was cinematographer). The central set-up here is just too predictable, and that undermines everything else going on. It would benefit from release on a decent sized cinema screen which would show off the environmental disaster effects to full advantage, but since it’s being released straight to digital here, sadly, you won’t get the opportunity to see it that way.
The Burning Sea is out on digital in the UK on Monday, May 30th.