The Burning Sea

The Burning Sea (aka North Sea, aka Nordsjøen) (2021) 

The Burning Sea (aka North Sea, aka Nordsjøen) first publsihed by

The Burning Sea opens like a documentary, with a montage of archival footage accompanied by what appears to be a genuine interview with a retired North Sea oil rig worker reminiscing about his past employment. He speaks of how the men on the platforms were neither trained nor safety conscious, but were very well compensated financially for the dangers inherent to the work. “Everyone made money,” the old-timer concludes, “The entire country made money. But it’s like driving a car – drive too fast for too long, and it will never end well.”

In speaking of the oil industry’s prioritisation of profits over security and in suggesting that the state endorsed the taking of such high risks, this prologue lays out what will become the key themes of the film that follows – and in implying that the industry is an accident waiting to happen, the prologue hints at a coming disaster that the film’s original Norwegian title – Nordsjøen, or North Sea – otherwise obscured. In any case, savvy viewers might already have been able to divine that this is a disaster movie from the identity of its director John Andreas Andersen, whose only other feature, The Quake (Skjelvet, 2018), was a direct sequel to Roar Uthaug’s The Wave (Bølgen, 2015), both of which place the geologist Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner) and his family at the centre of unraveling national emergencies. The Burning Sea does not feature Kristian as a character, but it nonetheless shares a co-writer, Harald Rosenløw-Eeg, with both earlier films, and follows a similar narrative template, as a tectonic disturbance creates chaos, and a small group of characters gets caught in the eye of the apocalyptic storm.

Sofia (the excellent Kristine Kujath Thorp) is very much in love with her boyfriend Stian (Henrik Bjelland), but despite having dated him for nine months, she has never shown any inclination to live with him or with his young son Odin (Nils Elias Olsen) from a previous relationship, and indeed seems quite happy that Stian regularly spends time offshore working on an oil platform. It is an odd arrangement, and even Sofia’s work colleague Arthur (Rolf Kristian Larsen) reckons it is high time that she ditch her independence and move in with Stian – but Sofia’s carefully negotiated distance from Stian is about to assume massive metaphorical form, as a rapidly widening seismic fissure will appear on the sea floor, leaving Stian abandoned and trapped on the crippled platform, while the authorities, embodied by emergency manager Willliam Lie (Bjørn Floberg) of the Joint Rescue Coordination Center, are too preoccupied with stopping a massive oil slick reaching the Norwegian coastline to do anything about this lone man down. So it is left to Sofia to try to locate her boyfriend and bring him home to Odin – and to herself too.

  Where some disaster movies (e.g. The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, San Andreas, Moonfall) take what might be called the Roland Emmerich route, playing out their catastrophes in a register of baroque absurdity that rarely skirts anything like reality, others prefer a more naturalistic mode. The Burning Sea certainly falls into the latter category, right from its pseudo-documentary opening, and once the viewer has got past the implausible coincidence that the girlfriend of the last man left on the oil rig happens to specialise in underwater robotics – a contrivance that allows these characters’ storylines to intersect closely – it is clear that Anderson’s film is dramatising an all-too-plausible ecological calamity. 

What is perhaps most interesting here, and deeply subversive for the genre, is the fact that it is the female Sofia who is rescuing the male Stian, rather than the other way around. That Sofia has remote control of ‘Eelie’, an electronic submersible with a decidedly phallic appearance, is a sly way of underlining the film’s switch in gender conventions and of marking her as the man of the hour. Resembling – and duly namechecking – Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon (2016), Anderson’s film unfolds on an altogether larger scale (the oil slick here is, as Lie points out, 350 times the size of its American counterpart), but its focus on relatively few characters, often in confined spaces, still makes it seem the smaller film. For despite the infernal cataclysm paradoxically promised by the title, the stakes always seem a little low in The Burning Sea. While all hell breaks loose at the water’s surface, Sofia’s climactic underwater activities revolve around the question of whether she can work out how to operate a hand pump, which seems just a little bathetic. Nonetheless, the film does drive home a message about the unsustainable environmental impact of Norway’s profiteering policies on fossil fuels.

Strap: John Andreas Anderson’s disaster movie imagines an environmental catastrophe occurring beneath Norway’s oil platform network

Anton Bitel