The Burning Sea

Year: 2021
Production Co: Fantefilm
Director: John Andreas Andersen
Writer: Harald Rosenløw-Eeg/Lars Gudmestad
Cast: Kristine Kujath Thorp, Henrik Bjelland, Rolf Kristian Larsen

A few years back Norwegian director Roar Uthaug made as bald-faced a bid for a Hollywood career as I've seen come out of Europe in a long time with The Wave. Aside from the language, it was a perfectly constructed disaster movie romp from the old Irwin Allen school, and I wasn't a bit surprised to see him crop up a few years later doing the Tomb Raider reboot (it's just a shame that movie sucked so badly – his hands would have been tied tightly by the marketing committee).

I thought of him while watching The Burning Sea. It doesn't have the traditional disaster movie plotline and motifs in its crosshairs quite as directly as The Wave did, but the premise and a lot of set pieces are great calling cards for something bigger and more mainstream.

Sofia (Kristine Kujath Thorp) is a young oil rig engineer who lives in a coastal community of her industry contemporaries. Her friends and boyfriend Stian (Henrik Bjelland) all work on and around the North Sea rigs, and she heads up a research company that makes robotic underwater drones for recon and rescue with a business partner, Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen).

There's a bit of plot set-up that establishes where Sofia is in her relationship with Stian and her work, but disaster is looming under the waves. The company calls her and Arthur in because a rig has overturned and sunk, and they need to launch from a nearby rig to look for survivors. After a tense search and several waterlogged bodies floating out of locked rooms, an alarm goes off in their operations centre. Sofia realises the rig they're on is leaking gas, and before anybody can get off, it explodes.

Most of the staff are rescued, but it reveals a bigger problem. A fault line at the bottom of the sea that's tens of thousands of years old is slipping, and the entire oil drilling infrastructure of the North Sea is under threat. If you've seen the trailer you've seen the jaw dropping big screen moment (ironically, it's another small screen VOD film that didn't get a theatrical release) of a swath of ocean churning along the gargantuan fault, swallowing up oil rigs and a supertanker.

While the desperate senior company staff try to coordinate a mass evacuation of the whole fleet before every rig is lost, Sofia races to rescue Stian, who's become trapped at ocean floor level trying to manually release the system that anchors the rig to the ground. She pilots the robot in to search for him among the submerged and ruptured rig works, and her and Arthur only just reach him in time.

But when they emerge back onto the upper decks the worst has happened. The fault has given way and countless millions of tons of oil has been spilled. The government, back at the operations centre, faces an impossible choice – let the worst spill in history devastate the Norwegian coast and economy for a century or more to come, or light it on fire and hope it burns out in the sea, which will do untold environmental damage anyway.

They choose the latter, which provides the striking visuals (and gives the film its name) of a wall of flame as high as a skyscraper and extending as far as the eye can see in either direction surging across the water. Worse still, the authorities have no idea where Sofia, Stian and Arthur are and when they finally raise the alarm and call for help, it's too late. Fighter jets have launched missiles that have ignited the North Sea, and the flames are headed their way.

Unlike The Wave there isn't a single very marketable hook on which to hang the disaster movie premise. The actual burning sea is just one of several big scale disasters to befall the characters along with oil rig collapses, the seismic fault and the gigantic explosions, but it's no less thrilling or well done for it.

The performances are earnest and suit the material perfectly, it goes along at a perfectly paced clip and doesn't overstay it's welcome, and it also has that very crisp, straight-lined European cinematography that doesn't hide anything. Even when it's obvious you're watching CGI it's the best possible execution of what it could be in the scene.

It's taut, well staged, well shot and has a perfect balance of gasp-worthy big screen moments and genuine dramatic performances to keep its feet on the ground.

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