Norwegian disaster movies The Wave and The Quake marked out an interesting middle ground in the genre. They eschewed the tiny, insular, approach of something like Right At Your Door, but didn’t quite have the budget to compete with the vast scale of the likes of Roland Emmerich’s CGI choked productions, but they turned their limitations very much to their advantage. Where Emmerich and others in Hollywood tend to favour spectacle over emotion, these films leaned in to character, and deployed their limited but high quality effects to make us feel the peril and therefore identify with the well drawn characters.
The Burning Sea, to my slight disappointment, doesn’t follow Kristoffer Joner’s character into yet another disaster, as if he were John McClane but it was nature, rather than terrorists, repeatedly trying to kill him. Instead, the film focuses on Sofia (Kristine Kujath Thorp), a robot submarine operator and her oil rig worker boyfriend Stian (Henrik Bjelland). After an accident on a rig, Sofia and her co-worker Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen) notice an underwater leak that points to disaster. As that disaster begins to unfold, the government and oil companies evacuate the rigs, but Stian gets trapped and a defiant Sofia, with Arthur’s help, sets out to rescue him.
While The Wave and The Quake both took their time, the disaster not beginning until roughly the hour mark, here things get off to a quicker start. We do establish Sofia and Stian’s relationship, and Sofia’s to his son Odin, but it all feels a little more rushed through this time, with the first action/suspense beat coming only about twenty minutes in. There is also a difference in focus, with a lot of time spent in boardrooms as the oil company and a government minister hammer out the details of the rescue. While the film doesn’t let companies off the hook, making it clear that their turning the sea bed into ‘swiss cheese’ probably contributed to the disaster, director John Andreas Andersen and writers Harald Rosenløw-Eeg and Lars Gudmestad also set aside the obvious trope of making them the moustache twirling villains of the piece.
The second act spends rather too much time in the boardroom, losing track of Sofia and Stian for a while, and while this scene setting is necessary, there’s little to invest in in these scenes, as even Odin’s story is a bit short changed. Happily the third act refocuses on the rescue, and as he did in The Quake (and Roar Uthaug did with The Wave), Andersen ekes plenty of tension out of his set pieces, small scale as they may be. Perhaps the best of these is the final one, with characters trapped in a sinking lifeboat that they must find a way to refloat.
While the effects are as impressive and sparingly used as ever, the setpieces again work thanks to the performances. Kristine Kujath Thorp made a striking impression on me with her lead role in Ninjababy, as a hopelessly unprepared young woman who discovers that she is six months pregnant. That character was immature and scattered, here Thorp is 180 degrees different. Sofia is intelligent and resourceful, driven. She’s much more mature than Ninjababy’s Rakel, and Thorp, though she doesn’t look different, seems so transformed that I had to check and make sure it was the same actress. There isn’t as much for her to grab onto as there was for Kristoffer Joner, but she makes every bit of it, from Sofia’s love for Stian, to her dedicated approach to her work, to her ability to find workarounds in the rescue, totally credible.
The rest of the cast have even broader roles, but Henrik Bjelland and Rolf Kristian Larsen provide strong support, and what emotion there is in the scenes at home base comes from a solid performance by Anders Baasmo Christiansen as Stian’s boss tries to figure out what he should say to Odin about what’s happening with his Dad.
The Burning Sea retains many of the best elements of its predecessors. Once again, it’s led by a standout performance that gets more from the character than was likely on the page. John Andreas Andersen marshals the chaos well, while leaving room for his actors as he draws out the suspense of the rescue. Where it falls down is in the more uneven pacing, which means that it never quite connects emotionally as powerfully as the previous two films did. That said, this is still an entertaining ride, and worth seeing just for Kristine Kujath Thorp, who is a major talent to watch.