BR: Pioneer (2013)

March 16, 2015 | By


Pioneer2013_BRFilm: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label: Magnolia

Region: A

Released:  March 10, 2015

Genre:  Suspense / Drama

Synopsis: Set in the late seventies during the North Sea oil boom, a Norwegian deep sea diver is alone in his quest to find the cause of his brother’s tragic death.

Special Features:  5 Behind-the-scenes featurettes (27:20) with Play All option / “Making of Pioneer: A Dive into the Depths of the Sea (8:01) / Interviews: “Working on Pioneer: Stephanie Sigman and Stephen Lang” (6:32) / U.S. Promo: “AXS TV: A Look at Pioneer” (2:20).





During the 1970s, Norway commissioned a series of test dives with cooperating American experts to develop safe and viable methods to assemble ocean floor piping in order to convey deep oil reserves in the North Sea back up to the mainland for refining.

As the film’s opening captions declare, Pioneer was “inspired by real events” insofar as it makes use of that historic backdrop where divers travelled to brutally pressurized depths to join pipes in a test module, risking their lives and potentially developing brain damage from the use of experimental air cocktails designed to enable safe traveling to and from work sites.

Director Eik Skjoldbjærg (Insomnia) and his team of four screenwriters transformed the potential friction between U.S. and Norwegian parties into a conspiracy tale in which greedy Americans were willing to kill nosey Norwegians after the eldest of a sibling diving team dies during a test job which may have resulted from negligence. Either the gas caused more than one blackout, leading to the diver’s death, or some figure / organization is exploiting a genuine accident to gain control of both experimental technology and valuable mining rights…

After a gripping start and the terrifying death of Petter’s (Aksel Hennie) brother, the makers of Pioneer lay in all kinds of eerie, creepy behaviour, but it’s all for naught, largely because the American characters are cold, wholly unsympathetic, and kind of irrelevant. There may have been jealousies and rivalries between the real-life national teams forced to cooperate on such a high stakes assignment, but it makes no sense for the cinematic Americans to behave like outright assholes. Stephen Lang plays the U.S. corporate CEO choreographing the dives, while Jonathan LaPaglia is the scientist whose breathing mix may hold the key to the diver’s death.

Wes Bentley is kind of just there, forced to play an ugly American stereotype with minimal dialogue, all snarls and flexing muscles, and clearly a duplicitous, selfish asshole who immediately expresses his hatred of Norwegians – behaviour that in any professional realm would’ve resulted in termination or some discipline, since cooperation is what ensures all divers come back to the surface alive and well.

Petter becomes the de facto detective in trying to understand how and why his brother died, and the bulk of the film has him walking, running, driving, and fighting in contrived sequences that mask a screenplay lacking any depth, let alone decent dialogue.



When the finale finally rolls into gear, the script pulls a cliché from the standard conspiracy film playbook and infers whatever may have killed the diver is irrelevant: the tragedy was used by Norwegian officials to kick the Americans out of the project due to flagrant negligence, and with a sample of their secret deep sea diving breathing mix – the films’ Hitchcockian MacGuffin – the country’s oil exploration agency can easily take over the test dives and control the entire operations. There’s a perfunctory pre-End Credit declaration about lawsuits from potentially brain-damaged divers from the test phases which the filmmakers use to bring the film story back to reality, but the caption hardly makes up for the red herrings that fill up the film’s unnecessary 2 hour running time.



The lack of a decent script and cardboard American characters are contrasted by the production’s otherwise stellar efforts to bring as much reality to the big screen, filming in Norwegian locations reminiscent of seventies sea ports; shooting gorgeous underwater footage in the clear, frigid environs of an Icelandic chasm; and studio tank filming in Hamburg to create intense scenes in the test module, diving bell, and decompression tanks.

Jallo Faber’s cinematography is gorgeous and highly evocative of a seventies docu-thriller while saturating the 2.35:1 ratio with clean blues, greens, and amber colours typical of contemporary films. The sound design is rick in details, and although Air’s music score contains some odd choices (not to mention a main theme that’s more than a little reminiscent of Tears for Fears’ “Shout”), it’s a moody, sometimes haunting work that evokes late seventies / early eighties all-synth scores with thick chords and steady, almost relaxing tempi.

Magnolia’s disc includes a series of making-of featurettes that are redundantly divided into five parts and function as promo pieces rather than contextualizing the film’s historic setting. There’s a lengthy piece on the car chase and unexpected Jeep rollover that could’ve easily killed star Hennie, but little else of note. A shorter and more intriguing featurette showcases the Icelandic divers and their setup in the chasm which yielded about one shot per dive for the film’s opening footage in which divers trek through pristinely clear water towards the test module.

American actor Lang and Mexican actress Stephanie Sigman (really well cast as the widow of Petter’s brother) chime in their excitement of working in Norway, but it’s straightforward P.R. material that was repurposed for the U.S. promo short that’s also on the disc.

As disappointing and dramatically shallow as Pioneer may be, fans of deep see diving thrillers will appreciate the look, the sound, and the feel of Skjoldbjærg’s claustrophobic film, especially on Blu-ray.

An interesting (and largely forgotten) variant is the English-Norwegian language film The Dive / Dykket (1989), where two diving aces become trapped in a diving bell in what should’ve been a routine quickie, and their odds of a safe rescue evaporate exponentially.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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