Pioneer on DVD
The story of two men in late 1970s sent to weld a pipe under the sea
I finally sat down to watch Erick Skjoldbaerg’s 2013 Norwegian movie Pioneer this week, which has recently been released here on DVD.
As a cold water diver myself, familiar with heavy drysuits, hi-tech gear and suchlike, the story of two men in the 1970s sent to weld a pipe under the sea held plenty of appeal. I probably should get out more.
hand-picked for a pioneering mission to the bottom of the ocean
At the centre of this tale is Petter (Pete) and his brother Knut (er, Knut). Knut is the good-looking one blessed with charm, gorgeous wife and son. Pete has giant sideburns and a porn star moustache. But the brothers love each other and are hard as a Scandinavian winter. They’ve been hand-picked by the Norwegian authorities for a pioneering mission to the bottom of the ocean that will kick start an oil boom, put Norway on the map and pump billions into the burgeoning economy. A true story then, or based on one.
This is saturation diving at a time when it was first exploited commercially in the North Sea. Breathing gases were dangerous and experimental, as vividly demonstrated in the opening scene we’re taken down to 500 metres in a compression chamber. The occupants quickly succumb to the effects of crushing pressure: “Who let that bird in here?” chuckles Pete, amused by a giant seagull sitting on his bunk. “They’re hallucinating,” records a deadpan physician staring through the porthole. It’s creepy and claustrophobic, and we haven’t even got in the water yet.
When we do, there are tensions straight away, not least between the Norwegians and their American partners along for the voyage, also keen to exploit the oil. Pete and Knut reach the bottom of the Norway trench and clamber out to begin work at the terrifying depth of 340 metres. As well as the pitch black, water and stomach-tightening sense of danger, there are some beautiful scenes here. The cinematography is glorious in a location as remote as the moon landing. The brothers clasp hands and celebrate Norway’s where-no-man-has-gone-before moment.
And then it all goes wrong.
The film rapidly shifts into tech-thriller mode. Detail would spoil the story but to give you an idea, the remaining 90 minutes contain almost no diving. Instead of chambers and diving bells we have mysterious doctors and physicians, weasel-like politicians, and highly emotional family members. At the centre of it all, the main character struggles to deal with the increasing burdens placed upon him (including the facial hair). The scriptwriters keep us guessing until the end: just who are the bad guys, Americans? Norwegians? Is someone really out to get him, or is it all in his mind?
On the whole, ‘Pioneer’ works as a tense drama irrespective of whether you’re interested in saturation diving or not. The plot could just as easily be about food additives or a contaminated water supply or illegal logging or any one of a hundred other feats of industrial espionage. It’s particularly brilliant because Norway’s oil industry has become the engine room of that small country’s economy and shaped its fortunes over the last forty years. A film about its founding fathers was long overdue.
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