Norway is a very prosperous nation, with a large part of its success down to North Sea oil. It’s also had a major boom in recent years with its film industry, with many notable titles getting quite acclaimed runs in the UK and other countries. Now Erik Skjoldbjærg, known for directing the original version of Insomnia, and Headhunters star Aksel Hennie team up to bring to the screen a film about the claiming of Norwegian oil. The thing is though, as fascinating a subject as this is, and with some real talent at work, this thriller never actually gets firing on all cylinders.
At the turn of the 80s, the race is on for the right company and nation to develop the techniques necessary to harvest the oil fields off the coast of Norway. Petter (Aksel Hennie) and his brother Knut (Andre Eriksen) are part of a joint Norwegian/American program to test hi-depth diving techniques vital for the pipeline. On the first crucial test-dive though, a fatal accident occurs. Petter, feeling partially responsible, tries to get to the bottom of things, but finds half-truths and evasion whichever way he turns. The oil pipeline is a matter that could change the destiny of a nation, so naturally it’s a huge, complex, cutthroat game he’s now a part of.
Given the nature of the storyline, there are some very technically impressive diving sequences in this film. The film shows very well the extreme danger that those who had to work at 500 feet depths were under, with some nail-bitingly tense sequences. The first disaster sequence is a breathlessly exciting race against time for a rescue, incredibly well put together. The film also deals well with the medical dangers of diving, in particular issues like the Bends and decompression sickness, things that more than a few other movies of this ilk tend to ignore. These scenes alone do lift the film considerably.
The storyline is pretty smart as well. Hennie is a solid lead, and here he’s got some good material to work with, especially given some key ambiguities. In some ways his character’s motivated by a search for justice, in others he’s having to deal with guilt and regret, seeing if what happened really was his fault or not. The plot is a very murky, complex affair of divided loyalties, secrets and lies. One clever point is the matter of international relations. There’s a lot of tension due to the separate nations working on the project, and their potential share of the prize of the oil field being at stake. As such, it’s to be expected that the Americans are shown to be ruthless in getting control of the pipeline, but it’s also shown that the Norwegian government is in their own way just as, if not more, ruthless. It’s a bold step, especially given how important an event in the nation’s history this is, with the story inspired by real life charges many of the divers brought against the country for compensation.
The thing is though, despite all this, the whole doesn’t really work as well as it should. It has some very effective set pieces, including very good stunt work, but somehow it’s quite hard to get into. Petter’s character arc is well-written, but there’s a major problem in that it becomes a bit too obvious way too early what’s actually happening to him, and it makes him look foolish for not catching on. Also, as compelling as the initial diving disaster goes, nothing of that intensity or effectiveness happens in the film again, and combined with the way the story just peters out to a stop, it feels all a bit anti-climactic. The direction is very solid, with lots of well staged scenes, but the script lets the side down, with the storyline all feeling a bit cobbled together (which may be because there are five separate screenwriters).
Overall though Pioneer is recommended, and well worth a watch. There are some fantastic set pieces, good performances all around, and the period detail is well realised. It’s just that the script and storyline really could have been a lot tighter, with some big, important areas the plot covers not having enough impact. The oddest thing for a film like this is that it feels somewhat shallow.