Despite the vast riches natural resources promise, they have a tendency to lead to corruption and instability. Norway is one of the few countries that has successfully marshalled this cursed prize, using careful exploitation and prudent saving to generate a sovereign wealth fund the envy of the world. It didn’t always used to be this way though. Director and co-writer Erik Skjoldbjærg, perhaps best known for Insomnia, later remade by Christopher Nolan, has chosen to take a look at the early days of oil drilling in the 1970s through the prism of a highly effective conspiracy thriller.
Wrapped up in his taut genre film, Pioneer takes a look at the divers and the experiments undertaken to find ways in which they can operate at the extreme depths required off the Norwegian coast in order to lay the vital pipelines. Brothers Petter (Aksel Hennie) and Knut (André Eriksen) are at the forefront of this programme, working in conjunction with American oil experts including Wes Bentley’s Mike. But when a tragic accident occurs during a practice dive, Petter is left to unravel events apparently covered up by shadowy figures.
As a historical conspiracy tale, it’s expertly put together. The pacing is masterful as the story moves forward, switching from moments of tense, creeping threat to fluid action. The twisting plot provides plenty of jumps, and more than enough intrigue along the way.
This is enhanced by layering the genre thriller elements on top of Skjoldbjærg’s examination of this highly dangerous period of underwater experimentation. A large number of lives were lost at the time, and cases have since been brought against the Norwegian government following the damage that was done to the divers. Petter’s quest unfolds in this context and ends on a wonderfully ambiguous note, contrasting the individual cost with the economic gains Norway has since reaped.
Occasionally, the joins between the genre and the political elements start to creak. Revelations pick up such a pace by the end that they start to unfold on top of each other, diluting the full impact. It’s a heady mix that mostly works but could have perhaps done with more time in a decompression chamber before surfacing.
But what really makes Pioneer stand out is the stunning imagery, particularly underwater. The empty, openness of the ocean floor is captured beautifully, the claustrophobic terror of being lowered more than the height of the Eiffel Tower below sea level in a diving bell seeps through. There are also several iconic images from a Norwegian flag being lowered and planted on the ocean bed, to the sight of an oil drilling platform being towed out to sea.
This well-made historical thriller opens an intriguing door on the early days of a period unknown to many, wrapping it loosely in effective genre conventions to propel a fascinating and always gripping plot to a satisfying conclusion. It’s already being tapped up for a US remake but it will have to be very good indeed to better Skjoldbjærg’s effort.
Pioneer is in cinemas 11th April 2014.
Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg
Stars: Wes Bentley, Stephen Lang, Aksel Hennie
Runtime: 111 min
Country: Norway, Germany, Sweden, France, Finland