Film: The Burning Sea

The disaster film can be uniquely compelling, whether it’s an opulent spectacle or a potent cautionary tale. Norway’s The Burning Sea (2021) is both, marrying impressively destructive pyrotechnics with searing systemic critique about capitalist short-sightedness. By layering a huge theme over a small, personal story, it makes a powerful point while securing whole-hearted investment in its people.

Sofia Hartman (Kristine Kujath Thorp) is a marine roboticist who specializes in remote-piloting submersible technology. When an oil platform in the North Sea collapses, she and her partner Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen) are called out to the site to surveil the wreckage, as there may be survivors trapped in air pockets. After signing an NDA with oil industry emergency manager William Lie (Bjørn Floberg), they send their submersible down, with traumatic results. Afterwards, reviewing the recorded footage, Sofia theorizes the platform collapse was more than just localized subsidence. She thinks there is a wider problem with the entire North Sea mining operation, and tries to raise the alarm. Although the company tries to do the right thing and shut everything down, it’s too late—and the catastrophe leaves Sofia’s boyfriend Stian (Henrik Bjelland), an oiler who works on one of the platforms, disastrously in harm’s way.

Even at their best, disaster films can feel silly, but The Burning Sea sure doesn’t, playing its concept straight and narrowing the viewpoint to hone the message. Thorp delivers a sensational action-hero protagonist here, exactly the kind of competent, resourceful presence needed to drive the action, while still being vulnerable and human enough to dramatize the terrifying circumstances. Her performance is crucial, but director John Andreas Andersen also elicits moving work from other key players, like Bjelland, Larsen, Anders Baasmo, and Ane Skumsvoll. Even if The Burning Sea’s worst-case scenario is more far-fetched than it looks, it’s considerably more plausible than disaster films usually are, which serves to anchor the drama and heroism in a veneer of cinematic realism. For a genre usually characterized by wacky morbidity, The Burning Sea stands out for how it wraps its taut, big-canvas thriller rhythms around a close-perspective story and finely articulated message.

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