While Gravity seems to be astounding everyone (ourselves included) with its overall immensity and depiction of life in space – where there are no boundaries, and a breathtaking sense of eternity looms over proceedings – Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Pioneer taps into such a notion from the opposite end of the spectrum, portraying a life beneath the sea, an area that is equally as gracious and intimidating, making for a disquieting piece of cinema.
Set in the early 1980s, this picture begins at the start of the Norwegian oil boom, when oil deposits are discovered on the bed of the North Sea. Knowing fully well this uncovering could breed vast amounts of money, the Norwegians go into partnership with the Americans to try deep sea diving into unchartered territory – and the ambitious, courageous diver Petter (Aksel Hennie) is prepared to take his chance and be one of the first to take part in this experiment, alongside his brother Knut (André Eriksen) and the arrogant Mike (Wes Bentley). However when disaster strikes and something goes terribly wrong, Petter returns to dry land to discover the truth – and when he isn’t given any answers, he starts to believe he’s embroiled in a menacing conspiracy theory.
The film gets off to an almighty tense start, as claustrophobia kicks in instantly. Skjoldbjærg doesn’t stop there either, as this inexorable thriller continues on in much of the same fashion. The setting plays a huge part in creating this uncomfortable atmosphere, as when the characters aren’t packed in together in this compact diving chamber, they have all of the space in the world, isolated and vulnerable at the depths of North Sea – and the long shots enhance such a sentiment. Pioneer is just such a suspenseful picture, and a real achievement for Skjoldbjærg, to be able to take a true story and create something so cinematic of it, following formula and sticking to the conventionalities of the genre and yet remaining faithful to the original story at hand. The narrative is intriguing also, and although times have changed, the themes remain pertinent – political corruptions and feuds over oil are hardly a thing of the past, after all.
In typical Skjoldbjærg fashion, our lead role Petter is such an unreliable narrator, as we see events unravel through the mind of someone so unpredictable – certainly a good thing where the thriller genre is concerned, as we never know quite what to believe. There’s no gradual decline in his mental state either, as he starts hallucinating within moments, as we instantly question the authenticity of his judgement, setting the tone for the rest of the film. Hennie is wonderful in the role, and despite the monotony thats kicks in in the latter stages, his performance ensures this film remains alive.
On a more negative note, though the conspiracy theory and determination to uncover the truth and seek justice for what has occurred is fascinating, the incident itself is too swift in its approach. It would be good to prolong the pivotal scene and build up to it more, especially given the entire film revolves around this particular scene, and it feels underplayed somewhat. That said, by portraying it as a sudden, unexpected occurrence plays on the realism of it, as in real life we are never quite prepared for moments such as this.
Pioneer remains a captivating thriller all the same, while it’s always enjoyable to see Americans turn up in a European film as the antagonist – something of a role reversal to what we usually see. Talking of America – given Skjoldbjærg’s most renowned piece Insomnia was adapted into a big Hollywood thriller by Christopher Nolan – it wouldn’t be the worst idea to see the same happen this time around, as for all of its ingenuity, you can’t help but feel that Pioneer is a film that seeks improvement in certain areas.