When you realize “The Burning Sea” follows the day-to-day life of a submarine operator rather than the victims stuck underwater during an oil rig disaster, you’d think the film makes a fatal narrative mistake. But when the story suddenly throws a curveball and this character, Sofia Hartman (Kristine Kujath Thorp), is unexpectedly blown away by a massive gas explosion near her ship minutes later in a display of visual effect prowess, you realize that “The Burning Sea” has much larger ambitions.
The film follows the steady, patient beat of a thorough, informed drama rather than the suspended-in-air dread of thrillers, which can either be a strength or weakness depending on who’s watching. For most people who are generally uninterested in the trials of an oil company, it might be the latter. The film begins with Sofia, who’s been contracted to find survivors underneath an underwater rig collapse off the coast of Norway with a robotic submarine. She and her colleague discover that the fallen platform is due to something much larger than local seafloor subsidence. We soon find out during a nervous boardroom meeting that because the oil company has been drilling thousands of wells on the ocean floor, a widespread seabed collapse is imminent, which will inevitably cause an environmental catastrophe. They decide on setting the leaked oil on fire to minimize damage (though something could be said about air pollution), and time is now the enemy.
“The Burning Sea” could benefit from more visualization. We get the sense of urgency mostly from dialogue, and there are no seafloor movement shots to illustrate their worries. Arguably, the best part of disaster movies are the theatrical-worthy shots of widespread catastrophe and impending doom: a volcano exploding and its creeping flood of lava, a gargantuan tornado chasing a car and leaving rubble in its wake, etc. In “The Burning Sea” we never see an oil rig collapse, which is a shame. There’s an intimidating grandeur to those vast steel structures that stand like giants in an even larger and unforgiving ocean, and you’re left hungry for those visual sequences. The imagery of the sea set on fire would be worth waiting for if the film bothered to milk those shots.
But “The Burning Sea” has many things working in its favor. There’s a reliable narrative authority that makes you wonder if this was documentation of a true event. And the characters are the best possible people who could be placed in their situation. It’s easy to root for someone like Sofia, who seems to be ready for every problem. The conflict reaches its climax when Sofia realizes that her boyfriend is trapped in a platform after everyone else has been evacuated. Receiving no help from the oil company, she has to rely on her resourcefulness to get her friends to safety.
Unlike most disaster movies, “The Burning Sea” doesn’t follow one major conflict from which suspense is bred. There’s no sustained sense of dread—that constant feeling of being at the edge of your seat—which is the bread and butter of thrillers and disaster movies at large. Instead, suspense is divvied up over a series of conflicts that Sofia has to solve, and therefore the film doesn’t allow that suspense enough time to penetrate to be effective. At a certain point, you begin to wonder when the main conflict begins and what the true stakes are. And before you know it, the movie has already ended. But with patient expectations, “The Burning Sea” is smart enough to enjoy.