John Andreas Andersen’s The Burning Sea fits comfortably within the formula for the environmental disaster film, cliché moments and grandiose heroics included.
The overlap of disaster movie and environmental message isn’t a particularly new phenomenon. From The Day After Tomorrow’s somewhat bombastic warning about climate change, to the terrifyingly relevant pandemic-focused Contagion, it’s a well utilised method of making a statement on the state of the world. In John Andreas Andersen’s The Burning Sea (Nordsjøen), the reliance on drilling for oil is the dire warning of the day, and the potential for debilitating consequences should nature decide enough is enough.
Fifty years after the discovery of one of the biggest oil fields off the coast of Norway, a crack has begun to form on the ocean floor that could lead to a devastating underwater landslide and catastrophic oil spill. Sofia (Kristine Kujath Thorp), who works for the underwater robotics company tasked with assessing a recently collapsed rig, comes to learn of this imminent threat when her underwater footage shows something that deviates quite heavily from the company line fed to her and her co-worker Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen). Her questions and concerns are summarily ignored by SAGA executive William Lie (Bjørn Floberg), but when another rig partially collapses and it leaves her boyfriend Stian (Henrik Bjelland) trapped, Sofia defies the pleas to stay away and rushes off to rescue him.
Perhaps it’s somewhat lazy to mention Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, a dramatisation of the real-life rig disaster that led to the biggest oil spill in history, but it seems the obvious comparison for the film’s ‘disaster movie’ elements. While The Burning Sea is not as nearly frenetic, there’s a similar build up of tension as the execs on shore worry over the incoming catastrophe, and the workers on the rig clamber about amidst ominously creaking pipes and a horizon full of open water. And while the titular burning sea isn’t as spectacular as the climactic sequence of Berg’s film, the incoming wall of fire as Sofia, Arthur and Stian frantically attempt to get a lifeboat in working order makes for a pretty credible threat.
Andersen’s film is entirely fictional, and it ponders the effect such a situation would have on Norway on an ecological, environmental and societal level. The key word there being ‘ponder’, because despite an impressive effects-laden middle section that visualises what had been a ‘worse-case scenario’, the environmentalism feels a tad clunky, the apocalyptic possibilities don’t resonate as hard as they should and the consequences are barely explored past a throwaway line tacked on the end of the film.
But while the film isn’t completely immune from some of the more formulaic disaster movie tropes, it relies a lot more on slow-building tension and never loses its intrigue or ability to feel engaging. The characters are relatively thin, underdeveloped and pretty generic, but they’re accessible and serve their function, which is to engage the audience on a personal level and give the wider-spread disaster a more focused and human narrative. Yes there’s cliché moments – Floberg’s infallible and brooding oil executive and the fact that the pilot who agrees to take Sofia out to the rig on her dangerous rescue mission also happens to be Stian’s brother to name but a few – but the action is slick and the performances impressive enough to somewhat forgive the more basic, disaster-movie-by-numbers elements to it.
The Burning Sea doesn’t offer anything particularly revolutionary to the growing group of enviro-disaster films, but it does offer entertainment. It’s not an over-the-top romp like The Day After Tomorrow or a chilling mirror of reality like Contagion, nor is it a stark warning of the overreliance on oil and the ecological dangers of decades of drilling for it. Instead, it’s a serviceable action thriller that delivers on grandiose heroics, impressive scenes of disaster and might even make you ponder going electric.