The makers of Norwegian disaster pictures The Wave (2015) and The Quake (2018) are back for a third cataclysmic round in John Andreas Anderson’s The Burning Sea (2021). There is nothing particularly innovative or inventive about Anderson’s film: a disaster strikes, one character is trapped and certain to die unless another can rescue them against the odds. Meanwhile, a family member frets in anticipation in front of a large video screen. While it is not in any way an ambitious undertaking, The Burning Sea is solidly built and efficiently made. You have to be a fan of disaster movies, but if you are – and you’re also happy to watch a Norwegian thriller with subtitles – this is straight-forward and satisfying entertainment.
A Norwegian gas rig in the North Sea partially collapses, sending roboticists Sofia (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen) to the scene to search the submerged structure for rubble. When gas leaks from the rig and ignites, it destroys the rig and creates an ecological disaster. After some investigation it is found that the subsidence that down one rig may be about to affect 350 others, forcing a mass evacuation and the risk of the largest oil spill in human history.
Wouldn’t you know it, but of all possible employees to become trapped on one of the rigs it is Sofia’s boyfriend Stian (Henrik Bjelland) who unluckily gets left behind. Cue much edge-of-one’s-seat action as Sofia and Stian strive to reunite and survive. There’s is water, fire, explosions, robot drones, rescue helicopters, and numerous pensive oil executives observing the action from the shore.
There is not much to discuss in terms of scripting: The Burning Sea is all stereotype and genre convention, without much to distinguish itself from numerous other action-thrillers. While the ecological angle could be interesting, it is notable that the film lacks any kind of identifiable villain. The executives, middle managers, and politicians are all oddly sympathetic people, deflating any sense of environment-based rage with a general shrug of polite apology. Of course Norway’s robust economy and government are both flush with cash from a booming oil and gas sector, so it is not hard to imagine no one involved in The Burning Sea‘s making particularly wants to bite the hand that feeds the whole country. It renders a potentially provocative backdrop as something close to white noise: busy work to fill the edges of scenes and give characters a reason to be where they are.
Generally there are two kinds of disaster film. There are the ostensibly realistic ones, where characters work to survive a crisis that – while not completely accurate – still reflects real physics in some fashion. Then there are the crazy, over-the-top affairs where oil riggers set off nuclear warheads on asteroids and volcanoes erupt in downtown Los Angeles. The Burning Sea definitely fits the former model. While it is not particularly original, it is an honest and broadly entertaining slice of populist entertainment. ‘Enjoyable enough’ may feel like an underwhelming recommendation, but it is a true one.
The Burning Sea screened at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. For more information, click here.