In “The Burning Sea,” which is your basic, everyday Norwegian oil-rig disaster thriller, Stian (Henrik Bjelland), a rig worker stationed on a drilling platform that’s about to collapse, must descend into the bowels of the rig to shut down a well that can’t be reached remotely. As the soundtrack fills with one of those flatulent brass musical scores that sounds like it’s heralding the arrival of the devil, a bureaucratically ominous title splashes across the screen: “D Shaft, Gullfaks A, 138 meters under the sea.” 138 meters? That’s pretty far down, though not necessarily deep enough to be, you know, scary.
The disaster film started off as a “realistic” genre, one that gradually grew more over-the-top. (The earthquake in “Earthquake,” released in 1974, doesn’t look like the apocalypse; about the worst thing that happens during it is that a highway collapses.) In recent decades, though, directors like Roland Emmerich (“The Day After Tomorrow,” “2012”) have accustomed us to the earthly-disaster-as-digital-ride. You could say it’s refreshing that “The Burning Sea,” the third in a series of not-so-over-the-top Norwegian disaster films, following “The Wave” and “The Quake” (this one, like “The Quake,” was directed by John Andreas Andersen), goes back to basics. It’s a movie about a giant oil spill, and it doesn’t hype (or, at least, not much) what it shows us. The hook of “The Burning Sea” is, or is supposed to be, its shaggy-actor Norwegian realism: the fact that it’s a disaster movie that shuns disaster-movie bombast.
The reason that’s more intriguing in theory than in practice is that the film turns out to be a very standard series of rescue-mission operations. When 30 drilling platforms in the North Sea, all owned by the SAGA corporation, collapse and sink into the ocean, it’s the result of an ancient rift in the earth having split open anew, provoked by all the drilling that’s turning the sea bottom into a Swiss cheese. If that strikes you as a cautionary message-movie scenario about the perils of the fossil-fuel industry, you’d be right.
But even the environmentalism of “The Burning Sea” feels a little phoned in. We know that oil disasters can happen, and do, and that, of course, is a powerful argument for finding alternative sources of energy. But none of this is news, and “The Burning Sea,” despite its pretensions to quotidian naturalism (plenty of hand-held camera; actors who look just unglamorous enough for their roles), lacks the shock and frisson of a movie like “The China Syndrome” or “Silkwood” — or Todd Haynes’s superb docudrama “Dark Waters,” which turns the specter of environmental contamination into a disturbing detective story of corporate malfeasance.
The corporate managers in “The Burning Sea” seem, at first, like the kind who would want to cover things up. When Sofia (Kristine Kujath Thorp), a robotics engineer who operates a snakelike ocean robot camera, shows the foreboding underwater footage she has captured to William Lie (Bjørn Floberg), a veteran SAGA executive, he asks for the tape as if he wants to bury it. But then the oil platforms, having literally gone under, release millions of gallons of oil into the sea, and the executives do the only thing they can: evacuate the survivors and decide how to minimize the damage.
This section, in its dryly understated way, does give off a glint of Roland Emmerich grandiosity. The worst-case scenario, according to a SAGA official named Berit (Ane Skumsvoll), who has the mien of a concerned high-school principal, is that Norway’s entire Western coast will be devastated. “Every fjord,” she says. “Every nook and cranny. Birds. Fish. All fauna. Nature. All aquaculture ruined. The fishing industry. Tourism. It will take decades to repair the damage, maybe a century. And then it will continue down this way, expanding toward Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Britain…” The way her speech keeps escalating, it’s a little like a “Naked Gun” scene. You keep waiting for her to say, “And Christmas will be canceled.”
But I don’t mean to make light of ecological ruin. It’s that weaselly but charismatic SAGA executive — the one who took the tape — who comes up with the idea of setting the oil spill on fire while it’s still in a relatively contained zone. The damage will be considerable, but better than the potential destruction otherwise. The oil fire, when it’s lit, looks spectacular enough, though maybe not as mind-blowing as the film’s title promises. The suspense comes from how Stian, in heading underground to shut down that well, got trapped before he could be evacuated. Sofia is his girlfriend, and she and her robotics partner, Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen), commander a helicopter and fly out to the rig to try and rescue Stian, which makes the film feel, for about 20 minutes, like “Titanic” set inside a giant trash compactor.
“The Burning Sea” isn’t based on a real case (though it may play off Forties Oil Field, discovered 100 miles off the coast of Scotland in 1970). Yet you often wish that it had been. The movie has every right to be fiction, but the heart of its drama lies in its patina of plausibility. It ends with the officials of Norway deciding that while they once thought of Norway as an “oil nation,” it’s really an “ocean nation.” All of which makes “The Burning Sea” a movie that’s likely to go over a lot better in Norway than it does in other places. At this point the world needs a movie that documents the sins of the fossil-fuel industry more than it needs a thriller that plays off its unhappy accidents.