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The Burning Sea (2021) Review

The Burning Sea, also known as Nordsjøen and no relation to fellow Norwegian film Burning Asphalt, is the latest disaster film to come out of Norway. Following after The Wave, The Quake and The Tunnel, The Burning Sea is like Deepwater Horizon on a Mr. Olympia sized steroid regime. One oil rig is for amateurs, they’re putting the entire Ormen Lange Oil Fields and all of its drilling platforms on the line here. As one character says “Do you remember Deepwater Horizon? That spill was the size of Denmark, and it was one rig. There are 350 here.”.

Sofia (Kristine Kujath Thorp, Ninja Baby, Betrayed) and her partner Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen, Cold Prey, The King’s Choice) have created Eelie, an eel-like robotic camera for underwater use. Arthur has a crush on his partner but she’s smitten with rig working single dad Stian (Henrik Bjelland, Now It’s Dark).

William Lie (Bjørn Floberg, Insomnia, Kingsman: The Secret Service) an executive for the oil company SAGA hires them for a job so secretive they aren’t told what it is even after signing non-disclosure agreements. It’s not until they’re on-site that they learn a rig has mysteriously sunk, and their job is to look for survivors. They do find one, but they also find signs that the seafloor in the area is about to collapse on a massive scale.

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Director John Andreas Andersen (The Quake, Captain Sabertooth and the Treasure of Lama Rama) and writers Harald Rosenløw-Eeg (The Wave, The Quake) and Lars Gudmestad (Cold Prey III, Headhunters) start the film on a smaller, but more emotional, scale than you might expect for a film like this. Concentrating on the various executives’ reaction to the corpse-filled wreckage, and the finding of a survivor (Daniel Frikstad, The 12th Man) trapped in an air pocket, rather than scenes of the rig sinking.

The Burning Sea plays with, and subverts, a lot of the tropes viewers will expect from a disaster film like this. The meeting where SAGA’s higher-ups and government officials view the footage that Eelie captured, for example, doesn’t play out the way you might expect. Nor does the reaction to the inevitable catastrophe. There’s a lot more nuance and shading to the characters, rather than the stark good and evil archetypes frequently found in this kind of film.

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Of course, some things do play out just the way you expect. You know Stian will be on one of the rigs in the disaster area, and he will have to put his life on the line to prevent the situation from becoming much worse. And you can also guess who will be the only ones who can save him, even if one of them might have a reason to let him die.

When Sofia and Arthur are being flown to the site of the first disaster, you can see several wind turbines in the background. That’s not a coincidence, The Burning Sea does have an ecological message, but it never pushes it to the point of propaganda or demonizing the various oil industry executives that figure into the plot. If anything, it feels a little naive about how willing they would be to put doing the right thing over maximum profits.

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While it does lean heavily on the human aspects of the disaster, that doesn’t mean that The Burning Sea doesn’t have its share of scenes of destruction. Most of them look like they were shot with miniatures and are nicely done. Several other shots, usually involving helicopters, look like CGI, however. Cinematographer Pål Ulvik Rokseth (Polaroid, Amundsen) deserves credit for his work, especially in the last act, where he makes the interior of the rig look and feel like The Nostromo from Alien.

While it might be a bit overlong at an hour and forty-five minutes, The Burning Sea is entertaining and builds to a riveting final half-hour with the leads trapped on a damaged rig as the film earns its title. It’s the kind of cinematic disaster you want to see.

Magnolia Pictures will release the Burning Sea via its Magnet Releasing label in a limited theatrical run and on VOD on February 25th. You can check their website for more information. 

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