Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: Erik Skjoldbjærg
Screenplay: Nikolaj Frobenius, Hans Gunnarsson, Cathinka Nicolaysen, Erik Skjoldbjærg, Kathrine Valen Zeiner.
Runtime: 111 minutes.
Cast: Aksel Hennie, Wes Bentley, Stephanie Sigman, Jonathan LaPaglia.
Trailer: “We'll all end up making a lot of money together.” (warning: film unlikely to make a lot of money.)
Plot: The ridiculous thriller pioneer follows Petter – a Norwegian deep sea diver, and part of an experimental team to lay pipelines at extreme depths. Set at the beginning of the Norwegian oil boom in the 1980s, Petter quickly finds himself at the centre of a cover-up after a dive gone wrong; and is quickly enmeshed in a conspiracy involving billions of dollars and several suspicious deaths.
Review: I would have loved to be at the pitch meeting for Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Pioneer. This alleged thriller alternates happily between long spells of clichéd boredom (setting up the action), followed by hilariously ridiculous action as protagonist Petter attempts to thwart the giant conspiracy arrayed against him. All the man wants is to get to the bottom of what happened to his damned brother! Oh wait, I haven’t gotten to that bit yet? Well, here goes – and brace yourselves, because this is not a good plot.
Petter is a deep sea diver in the early 1980s, and part of a Norwegian-American experimental team tasked with pioneering methods of reaching even greater depths. Petter’s brother, Knut, is also a deep sea diver – but one with a family, and his life generally a whole lot better together than Petter (cue ominous music). To illustrate how dysfunctional Petter’s free-wheeling life is, he lives on a boat (no, not a houseboat) that is blown up later in one of the many action sequences of the film. A great deal rides on the success of Petter and Knut’s work, and the co-venture in general, as laying a deep sea pipeline will allowNorway to tap the oil riches offshore. But trust is at a premium; as the American company carefully guards the secret recipe to their oxygen supply for dives, and the Norwegian government wants to exploit American expertise while keeping all the lucrative contracts at home. Things quickly go bad, Knut is killed in a dive on Petter’s watch, and the surviving brother is caught in the middle of a high stakes conspiracy.
So there you have it – the pitch meeting. “Hey, Pioneer combines the fun and excitement of a slow negotiation over government contracts with the thrilling world of biomechanical research; featuring explanations of the chemical composition of gas mixes at deep sea levels, the minutiae of operating a diving ship and attached pod, the business of setting up and running a successful lab as part of a public private venture, and the difficulties of managing the relationship with the media on a high profile economic project!” I’m in, the executives must have said as they frothed at the mouth and stamped their feet in excitement. I’m just kidding; this was probably all funded by the Norwegian Government Film Board.
This probably explains the over-compensation the rest of the film suffers from. Shot in the slick, sharp colours of a streetlamp at midnight crossed with a day at your local aquarium (read: lots of blue), Pioneer gets the full Michael Bay treatment (sans beer robot, sadly). Thrilling twists of conspiracy? Check! Car chases? Check! Explosions? Check! Boat chases? Check and check! Chases on foot? Several! Lots of chasing in this one! Protagonist who thinks he is losing his mind until discovering the conspiracy goes even deeper? You bet!
I won’t spoil these exciting twists and turns for the audience, in case they haven’t already been dissuaded by this and other reviews. But the five scriptwriters should probably give away that this is a big budget, dumbly writen film that reflects the awkwardness of the many hands that have shaped it. Many of the action sequences are clumsily shoe-horned in to awaken the audience from the last long stretch of clunky exposition. At one point, Petter is nearly rammed off the road by a maniac, who turns out to be a diving friend that just wanted to say hi. Knut’s grieving family is dragged out time and again to add a little pathos; and tension is built through a caper to steal a gas sample for the Norwegian government. Note to script writers: when the latter is the centrepiece of your Oceans-style heist, you are in trouble.
The other elements were never going to succeed in overcoming these flaws; but added to this, the performance of Aksel Hennie doesn’t help. A regular lead actor in Norway, Hennie’s charm and talent don’t translate to an international audience; leaving him looking like a bald accountant who’s hit the gym as part of an ongoing mid-life crisis. Lacking charisma throughout the length of Pioneer, Hennie’s characterisation will leave the audience wondering why a coke-addled extra from the closing scenes of Boogie Nights keeps wandering into shot. The other performances are scarcely better, with the American cast turning in particularly overblown or caricatured performances. Jonathan LaPaglia turns up to collect a pay check, as do a few other recognisable faces.
There was a good film to be made with this material; perhaps once the macho bullshit and unbelievable conspiracies are stripped away. The deep sea dives themselves are thrilling, and the divers appear as astronauts landing on an alien planet. The details of the dives themselves, the risks, and the people who are involved with them are genuinely interesting. The support structure of the crew, and the experimental techniques that drive this cutting edge industry, is equally fascinating. Sadly, this is just used as scaffolding for an uninspiring film, which leaves these facets largely uninterrogated.
Rating: One and a half leagues under the sea. (Not really, they were diving to a depth of 500 metres – which has been increased to nearly 610 metres through the use of the US Navy’s Atmospheric Diving Suit. That stuff is actually quite interesting.)