By: Brendan Graham
Disasters in film are a well-recognized sub-genre and are often mega-blockbusters and highly successful. There’s something cathartic about experiencing the worst-case scenario, in an entertaining and safe environment. Whether it be earthquakes, hurricanes, the earth’s core, or even tornados filled with sharks, audiences love to fill those seats.
One of the biggest environmental disasters is oil spills. Not only do they hurt the environment and sea life, but working on those rigs is some of the most dangerous work in the world for the men and women aboard. We’ve seen films like Deepwater Horizon, but now Norway has its own entry, and it’s quite enjoyable if you don’t think too hard about it.
THE BURNING SEA (or NORDSJØEN as it is titled in their native language) begins with a bit of history. A discovery of the world’s largest oil field in the North Sea in 1969, and how over the next 50 years, it became more obvious that the drilling of this oil field was causing irreversible environmental damage. We are then introduced to Sofia (Kristine Kujath Thorp), a sea robotics researcher who is currently staying with her oil rig worker boyfriend Stian (Henrik Bjelland) and his young son Odin (Nils Elias Olsen).
She works in a robotic research facility where they are working on an eel-like machine that will allow them to see into hard-to-reach places in the ocean. She and her co-worker Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen) establish their type of relationship with a friendly bet about how fast she could maneuver the machine through obstacles for control over the music selections for the car. They receive a call about a rig that has collapsed because of a crack in the ocean floor, and they are to use their robot to maneuver the wreckage to see if there are any survivors in air pockets inside the fallen rig. After finding a survivor that ends up getting killed in an explosion, Sofia quickly realizes that this is the beginning of a catastrophe that she will find herself enveloped in further - when her boyfriend gets trapped on a rig that has collapsed.
One of the many issues I have with disaster films is the characters are fairly one-dimensional, obnoxious, or unlikable. We don’t care as much about them if they are trapped under rubble, if they fall into the earth, etc. THE BURNING SEA fixes this issue with very relatable characters who are genuinely well-natured and easy to like. Sofia and Stian’s relationship is very endearing and sweet, and there is real chemistry between the two actors. Even the young man playing Odin puts in a great performance (which doesn’t happen very often with child actors). I also really enjoyed Arthur as a character, and I appreciate a co-worker that isn’t creepy towards the protagonist. The rest of the cast puts in a solid effort as well, none of them sticking out as awkward or unnecessary, which is something I always appreciate.
Another important aspect of disaster films is the visual effects, and also, in my opinion, sound design. We need to feel the tension and to feel that it needs to look and sound believable. THE BURNING SEA accomplishes this with some pretty spectacular visuals. I was pretty impressed with the rig collapse sequence, as I had not been expecting that level of quality. The sound design is also superb, with rushing water, busted pipes, and explosions that are mixed to perfection, excellent for surround sound.
Where THE BURNING SEA starts to fizzle out would be the lack of high-stakes conflict (besides the rig, of course) and the overall pacing of the story. They introduce the oil company, have workers sign NDAs, and generally act pretty nonchalantly about people being in danger. Maybe I’ve become more attuned to the American oil company stereotype, where they have more apparent malice and are money hungry. You don’t have the same conflict here, so it’s relatively easier than it should be to get our protagonist into the rescue process. Maybe that’s just my personal preference, making things harder on the characters. The film also tends to drag a bit in the middle, when we jump from the disaster to the office, and see how the characters are reacting to the unfolding events. It can be a bit jarring and it sometimes throws off the intensity of the scene we were just experiencing. I’m not much of a scientist, so I can’t comment on any accuracies of the equipment and events shown on screen, but they did feel a little forced and at times unbelievable.
I was surprised by how much I did enjoy THE BURNING SEA. It’s not perfect by any means, and it still has that B-movie afterglow of other disaster films. There’s something about watching a movie from a different country, and seeing the similarities and styles of their film industry, and where those differences lie. If there’s one thing that Norway has over us as far as disaster movies are concerned, I think it would be heart. Check your expectations, get ready to read some subtitles, and strap in for THE BURNING SEA.
THE BURNING SEA will be in limited theaters and VOD services on February 25th.