In a film hinged on a killer ocean rift, the most outlandish portion of Norwegian disaster-movie-savant John Andreas Andersen’s “The Burning Sea” occurs when the people in authority — when presented with the scientific facts of the matter — make the right decision. In Norway, oil is truly liquid gold. Though the country, in reality, hopes to become a leader on climate change, the region stands as one of the world’s leaders in exporting that fossil fuel. For Andersen, the contradiction seems rife for big explosions and large devastation, for a movie so intuitively captivating, so visually extravagant, it very nearly papers over all its emotional weaknesses.
The third film in a disaster trilogy that began with “The Wave” flowing seamlessly into “The Quake,” a fake documentary launches “The Burning Sea.” An older oil man, living in a cabin, wistfully recalls the country’s energy legacy: Footage from the 1980s of craned rigs, projectile plumes of oil, and birds covered in the noxious black liquid stitch a montage. It was dangerous, but everyone made money, he gleefully recounts, while acknowledging how a persistent race against “a risk of undesirable incidents” lived in the back of the country’s consciousness.
That complicated history serves as the stress test in Andersen’s pulsating, unnerving, though thinly characterized film, when robotics engineer Sofia Hartman (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and her timid assistant Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen) are called with their underwater robot to assist in a sea excavation of a sunken oil platform. William Lie (Bjørn Floberg), one of the heads of SAGA (in real life, a now defunct petroleum company) believes survivors in the downed structure might still exist in air pockets.
While it’s never clear how they would even be rescued from such a deep depth, others questions remain: How did this happen? SAGA blames a freak-of-nature subsidence as the culprit. Why the secrecy? Lie asks Sofia and Arthur to sign “confidentiality agreements” before beginning their work (he refuses to call them “nondisclosure agreements”). Is this normal corporate obfuscation through underhanded legalese or the results of more nefarious motives? Screenwriters Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Lars Gudmestad lay these mysteries like depth charges, and their explosions shake the initially languid narrative to depressing destruction on a glorious, but conflicting, large canvas.
The characters in “The Burning Sea” are the standard stock and trade of disaster movies. After nine months of dating, the fiercely independent Sofia wonders if she should move in with the gentle Stian (Henrik Bjelland), an engineer on the Gullfaks A rig, and his young son Odin (Nils Elias Olsen). The pair come from a tight-knit community dependent upon the oil industry (even Stian’s sister operates as a helicopter pilot saving platform workers). Considering these basic building blocks — which will soon morph into a love tested by calamity, a heartbroken child awaiting the return of his father, and a supportive assistant pushed into danger — these generic characters offer nothing new to the genre. They merely exist for the narrative’s delight, on the edge of ruin.
Ruin arrives when Sofia discovers the Storegga Slide moving again, causing a seabed rift threatening to not only destroy every platform (there are approximately 350), but to envelop the entire Baltic sea in oil, leading to an ecological disaster requiring a century for the region to recover from. SAGA knows the danger, and the moment Sofia informs them of their worst fears, a near-utopian event occurs: They listen. They decide to evacuate the rigs and shut down oil production. In a brief scene, the SAGA leadership downplays whether the slide has been caused by climate change or over drilling. Either way we know the blame lies with humans. Andersen doesn’t play the sequence to soap box ends or resort to didactic dialogue. He allows the beat to settle, then resolve to a light reverberation which will find fertile ground in the film’s hopeful finale.
While most disaster flicks try to discover embers of hope amid near-annihilation — usually the human race stumbles on a path to a healthier future, with hard lessons finally learned — the pain from our species’ worst mistakes must accumulate first before salvation. For Sofia, the anguish surfaces when Gullfaks A collapses, entrapping Stian underwater. Sofia and Arthur venture to the rig to save him.
“The Burning Sea” will no doubt lead to comparisons to “Deep Water Horizon,” another film, though more Hollywood in its melodramatic ambitions, about the ills of fossil fuels. In actuality, in DP Pål Ulvik Rokseth’s frenetic photography, reliant on whip pans, the legacy of the Bourne franchise emerges: Both films cleave mounds of anxiety from people in suits in a situation room, pensively standing, acutely pointing at horrific footage. The clipped editing, waves of sharded, fragmented images (an explosion here, a face covered in despair there) fastened together give the picture’s second half, when everything hits the fan, a brisk, unrelenting pace. The VFX: collapsing rigs, a submarine slowly sinking to a watery grave, and, yes, a hellish seascape on fire — and the claustrophobic spaces of steel hallways decorated by pipes, nourish wicked appetites.
The disaster is so enrapturing, so unnerving, giving palms a glacial sweat, it nearly overcomes the interpersonal shortcomings of the two leads: Sofia and Stian. As you would expect, by the end, their lives hang in the balance. Will Odin be left an orphan? Because the script never provides them further depth, apart from being stock disaster movie characters, whether they ultimately live is rendered anticlimactic. Instead, in Andersen’s “The Burning Sea,” you can see the stakes clearest when the sea burns, when he zooms out: The panicking ensemble in the situation room and the unthinkable decisions they must deliver. Or the haunting, apocalyptic images of black smoke overtaking a watery landscape. It’s almost enough to make you wish this disaster movie, or our frustrating species, won’t leave with the hopeful ending we so clearly haven’t earned.
“The Burning Sea” is now playing in theaters and available to stream on VOD.