The Burning Sea is a Norwegian disaster movie from some of the same people who brought us The Wave and The Quake. Seeing a foreign take on the genre is always interesting. Had this same story been made in America, it would have been two-and-a-half hours long and way more chaotic. Director John Andreas Andersen brings it in at a tidy 104 minutes, and keeps as much – if not more – emphasis on the characters as on the catastrophe.
The movie gets to its central disaster within the first few minutes. A crack has opened up on the ocean floor, causing an oil rig to collapse into the ocean. Scientists Sophia (Kristine Kujath Thorp) and Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen) are called in to send their mini-submarine down to the wreckage to see if anybody is still surviving inside an air pocket. That's just the start of their adventure. The crack ends up being bigger than expected, putting thirty other drilling platforms at risk. During the evacuation of those platforms, Sophia's boyfriend Stian (Henrik Bjelland) is left behind. When the company that owns all the rigs won't launch a rescue mission, and she and Arthur take it upon themselves to go help Stian.
Disaster movies by definition have contrivances. Most of them rely on the idea of someone close to the protagonist being in grave danger. That “race to save my whatever” plot point has become a cliché, and The Burning Sea hauls it out again. Of course, Stian has a little boy, just to up the ante on things. The movie at least elevates those overly familiar elements with good performances. Thorp effectively conveys the soul-gripping fear that Sophia feels, knowing her love might perish if she can't get to him in time. That adds more tension to the whole scenario. Her performance keeps us emotionally invested, despite the general familiarity.
A fair amount of time is spent on the behind-the-scenes machinations, as Sophia realizes Stian is missing, tries to convince the company to go get him, etc. That's pretty tense stuff. When The Burning Sea does get to those action scenes, which are mostly in the last act, they're exceptionally well-done. As the title implies, a decision is eventually made to set the spilled oil on fire in order to prevent it from creating even worse ecological damage, adding one more layer of danger to an already insanely perilous situation. Visual effects in the film are at just the right level to be exciting, without ever veering into overkill.
The best part of the movie is the finale, which involves Sophia making a last-ditch life-saving effort that's harrowing to watch. If you're claustrophobic, afraid of water, and/or dislike depth, prepare to start biting your fingernails. The Burning Sea offers plenty of thrills and human drama, but also a socially-conscious message about the environmental hazards of drilling for oil in the ocean. All in all, the film operates on multiple levels simultaneously, making itself a disaster flick that actually has some weight to match its sense of fun.
out of four
The Burning Sea is rated PG-13 for peril, some disturbing images, language and brief partial nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 44 minutes.