Mention the ‘80s oil boom and chances are the first things to leap to mind all stem from the same glossy trashcan of a telly classic. The split-screen opening titles. The uptempo toot of the theme tune. The many-gallonned headgear of Larry Hagman.
Mention the ‘80s oil boom and chances are you feel as if it can be summed up with a single two-syllable word.
Thing is, that’s not the whole story. Because while the Texans may indeed have been minting moolah from their fellow Americans’ thirst for the black stuff in the wake of various Middle Eastern crises, there was a whole other oil boom going on an ocean away. And it’s into this political and economic maelstrom that Pioneer’s human drama is pitched.
Some slightly clunky intro text sets the scene. It’s 30-odd years ago, huge reserves of oil have been discovered just off the coast of Norway, and a race is underway to become the first to tap them.
Just one problem: to do so necessitates the creation of a pipeline to the mainland, requiring teams of daredevil divers to be dispatched 500 metres beneath the North Sea’s surface to carry out this mind-bogglingly dangerous work.
Two such divers are brothers Knut (André Eriksen) and Petter (Askel Hennie, whose bald scalp and muscle man moustache render him unrecognisable from the sharp-suited smoothie he played in 2011 global hit Headhunters).
The bros are part of an international diving team, the competitive make-up of which is indicative of an uneasy alliance between the Norwegian state – embodied by Jørgen Langhelle’s shadowy politico – and American corporate interests – led by Stephen Lang’s Ferris (the Avatar star in scratchy beard and tinted specs looking a lot like the late Gerry Rafferty).
Pioneer is strongest in its early scenes when the focus is firmly on this diving team, with director Erik Skjoldbjærg taking his time in showing us the testing conditions Petter, Knut and company are subjected to. The underwater scenes are stiflingly claustrophobic and spookily staged – the bottom of the ocean recast as dark side of the moon.
Where the movie begins to come a bit of a cropper is when it surfaces for air; after a serious incident on the seabed sets Petter on a desperate quest for the truth of what really happened, he’s thrust into conflict with a whole host of interests to whom the looming billion dollar oil bonanza is a prize worth obtaining by any means.
It’s a sudden lurch into conspiracy thriller territory, inspired according to Skjoldbjærg by his love of the great paranoia pictures of the ‘70s, such as The Conversation and All the President’s Men. Petter finds himself being followed, chased, attacked, and blocked at various turns, but it’s all a bit ho-hum, certainly when compared to the powerful execution of the underwater sequences (one submerged shot of an explosion is a thing of beauty unto itself).
Skjoldbjærg’s other stated inspiration for Pioneer was a desire to create a character-driven thriller in the mould of his own first and still best-known film, Insomnia (subsequently remade, of course, by Christopher Nolan). However, the movie’s eerie coda suggests the points the director ultimately wants to make are political rather than personal, with his home country being presented as a nation which is every bit as fuelled by mammon as J.R. Ewing and his big fat hat.
Pioneer is released in the UK on 11 April