Marking my second cinematic foray of 2014 into the lonesome world of deep sea diving (the first being James Cameron’s documentary DEEPSEA CHALLENGE 3D), filmmaker Erik Skjoldbjærg transports us back to the “Norwegian Oil Boom of the 1980s” – a time in history where nations were battling for a slice of Norway’s blackest riches.
Pioneer is a story filled with greedy corporations, wide-eyed politicians, diving records, and conspiracies most foul, uncovering secrets buried below the murky sea floor for years without much notice. It’s a recognizable story of people becoming cogs in a dangerous machine running solely on the promise of tremendous payoffs, and the lengths some cogs will go for their due justice, but you’re right to question the intensity of this deep-sea-detective-case. Norway’s historical significance may be staggering, but facts don’t immediately translate into a suspenseful underwater mystery without a little help.
Petter (Aksel Hennie) and his brother Knut (André Eriksen) are two of Norway’s most prolific divers, selected to prove that men can safely assemble pipelines at a depth of 500 meters underwater. Going through a rigorous training course with American help, the two divers set out to become the first construction workers to survive such depths, but something goes tragically wrong and the program faces a heaping amount of negative attention. Left to discover the truth on his own, Petter starts digging around in places he shouldn’t be, and realizes that finding any incriminating evidence would put his own life at risk. Petter must ask himself if justice is worth the target on his back, as he’s determined to expose what really happened that fateful day.
While the story itself provides an enlightening looking into the corrupt practices of oil-hungry businessmen waiting to stake their claim, Petter’s undercover detective act isn’t the most convincing. Skjoldbjærg ensures that viewers understand how divers were used as glorified guinea pigs while scientists secretly tested gas mixtures thought to counteract harmful deep sea pressures – without the participant’s knowledge – but Pioneer‘s Columbo-inspired bits lack conviction.
As Petter finds himself becoming deeply embroiled in the agreements between Norway and America, his actions become more and more unconvincing. This isn’t an attempt to discredit Eriksen’s performance, but instead point out the strange ways in which cinematographer Jallo Faber and Skjoldbjærg evoke the feeling of cheesy 80s investigation fluff thanks to quick cuts and musical cues that feel a bit spoofy. Like, Old-Navy-commerical-bringing-back-bell-bottom-jeans spoofy.
Pioneer is also a VERY obvious movie, including every cliche from the character who sets out for “one last dive” before officially retiring to characters coming forth with information only to die in the following scene, which ends up sucking any mystery into a vacuum of generic stepping stones. Red herrings do anything but stray us from an obvious path, characters unnecessarily verbalize utterly readable actions, and the “baddies” act like D-grade Bond villains stuck in a dull eco-plan lacking promised thrills. For a movie packing Norwegian social commentary and business corruption, Skjoldbjærg struggles to convey an equally weighty message worthy of such a despicable scenario – even when gifted true events riddled with deception.
Aksel Hennie steers Pioneer as the film’s moral compass, playing a troubled diver left to deal with unfortunate consequences brought about by reckless testing, but again, he’s not exactly Magnum, P.I. (oh, I’ve got plenty more investigator references). While Hennie is sometimes convincing as a simple swimmer forced into snatch-and-grab situations, other instances drive his paranoia too far into an unrecognizable realism (one specific car crash outside of a tunnel, for example). It also doesn’t help that co-stars Wes Bentley and Stephen Lang are nothing but stereotypical American d-bags, which actually goes hand-in-hand with Skjoldbjærg’s bullish American representation. Bentley in specific feels horridly out of place in a role that only enlists him to act hot-headed and egotistical. You know, like a true American.
Pioneer is a glance into Norway’s seedy past, but it’s one with stunted intrigue and excitement. Skjoldbjærg and company attempt to highlight an international cat-and-mouse chase brought upon by man’s narrow-minded focus on riches, but fail in creating the tense environment audiences demand. Much like the deepest reaches of our vast oceanic systems, Pioneer is a murky, barren thriller without much substance to show, like the dead ocean floors explored by Norwegian divers many moons ago.
Pioneer is a successful bit of anti-American propaganda, but as a conspiracy thriller, there's not much worth diving into.