This conspiracy thriller is set in the early 80's, the beginning of the Norwegian Oil Boom. Enormous oil and gas deposits are discovered in the North Sea and the authorities aim to bring the oil ashore through a pipeline from depths of 500 meters. A professional diver, Petter, obsessed with reaching the bottom of the Norwegian Sea has the discipline, strength and courage to take on the world's most dangerous mission. But a sudden, tragic accident changes everything. Petter is sent on a perilous journey where he loses sight of who's pulling the strings. Gradually he realizes that he is in way over his head and that his life is at stake.
From the director of the original 'Insomnia,' the producers of the amazing thriller 'Headhunters' (if you don't know it, then now you know what to watch this weekend) and the extremely talented star of 'Headhunters,' you'd expect this combination of filmmakers to be a pure home run. Unfortunately, while 'Pioneer' is worth watching at least once, it's certainly not as impressive nor praiseworthy as the aforementioned titles.
I enjoy a good drama that folds a piece of little-known history into its story. Revolving around the late '70s early '80s oil boom in Norway, 'Pioneer' fits into that category. With massive untapped oil deposits found in the North Sea and a major deep-sea pipeline needing to be built, unwealthy Norway didn't have the means to extract the liquid gold on its own. Amongst others, the United States offered help in extracting it, but 'Pioneer' solely focuses on the relationship between the U.S. and Norway.
Our drama starts off with a series of title cards that explain the history of the scenario. We're quickly introduced to our central character, Petter (Aksel Hennie). He and his brother Knut are like the golden children of Norway. Being the nation's two forefront underwater deep-sea welders, they're like a pair of rockstars. Interviewed by news outlets, they're viewed as the two pioneers who are going to explore the deep and, with the help of the Americans, bring much-needed wealth and stimulation to Norway's economy and residents. As we see the physical stress that they put their bodies through while doing supervised extreme pressure tests in a hyperbolic chamber, we immediately understand the risk of their jobs. Petter and Knut are genuinely foraging through unknown territory.
Watching these tests brings an adventurous excitement to 'Pioneer' – but not just because of the risky unknown that we can sense lies ahead. Mike (Wes Bentley), a seasoned American diver, views Petter and Knut as unworthy amateurs. He impatiently stands by waiting for their failure so he can get the glory that his arrogance has lead him to believe that he deserves. His disdain for them is obvious, as is the fact that he just might be a big enough bully to expedite their presumed failure.
But the generated excitement that really builds viewer anticipation is the waiting. We know that sooner than later we're going to watch Petter and Knut ride in a diving bell to the deepest part of the North Sea. When we get to that point, 'Pioneer' portrays on-screen images unlike anything you've seen in a feature film. The deep sea moments aren't tight CG-enhanced shots from within a diving tank. The 'Pioneer' filmmakers found gorgeous, clear and nightmarishly dark locations to shoot such scenes – and they're absolutely brilliant. The diving is real. Watching the characters descend, then fill a lowered workstation with oxygen and prepare it for welding is unnerving and intense. The exciting fear that it generates is rare. Truthfully, the story of 'Pioneer' that follows this sequence is okay, but it's the production value and visual quality of these scenes that makes it worth seeing. If you look at taglines and quotes from reviews of the film, this is what's mentioned. And reasonably so.
Back to the story. While Petter and Knut prepare their oxygen-filled work station for the large welding job at hand, something goes wrong. Petter controls the valve that inflates a large rubber balloon that holds the water back, but when he inexplicably blacks out, the pressure becomes too high, bursting the balloon and quickly filling the chamber with water. When he comes to, Knut is unconscious and no longer has an oxygen supply, so Petter risks all by giving up his air, holding his breath and dragging his lifeless brother through a seemingly impossible swim back to the distant diving bell. Although he's ultimately successful in making it back, Knut is too far gone.
The rest of the film is dedicated to watching a brother grieve. Petter is incapable of taking blame for the incident because the blackout is abnormal for him. He's never experienced such a thing, so he can't help but place the blame on others. Was his oxygen cut off? If so, who cut it? And if so, how high up the ladder does it go? Petter doesn't know who's at fault, but he's hellbent on discovering the identity of that person and the reason for it.
Unfortunately, no matter how far down the rabbit hole we go, 'Pioneer' never gets close to matching the entertainment and interest level created by that first dive. What follows is decent, but it's nothing too special and definitely not good enough to make you want to revisit it any time soon. If you – like I did – are expecting a thriller filled with the intensity of the first dive, don't hold your breath for it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Pioneer' hits Blu-ray with a Region A BD-25 in a standard blue Elite keepcase. Magnolia has loaded the front end of the disc with a vanity reel, commentary disclaimer and skippable trailers/commercials for 'Serena,' 'The Two Faces of January,' 'Headhunters,' 'Grand Piano,' Chideo and AXS TV. If you happen to stop the disc partway through, a "resume play" feature will allow you to return the exact moment you stopped.
'Pioneer' has received a decent 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode, the greatness of which is dampened by a bit of over-stylization. Set in the late '70s, it carries the decade's iconic golden amber palette and plenty of hazy to boot. The colorization and brightness combined with the movie's grainy appearance (I honestly cannot tell if it's celluloid grain or a light dusting of noise because no technical specks online nor special features reveal whether 'Pioneer' was shot digitally or on film stock) tend to hide the fine details that can be seen throughout. Once shot might reveal the fibrous detail of a character's costume, while the next appears so overly colorized and bright that those same detail are entirely lost.
Luckily, the video quality holds up the best when it counts the most – during the underwater diving scenes. I'd feared that the 25-gig disc would result in the bands galore during the deep-sea footage, but it doesn't. The detail-consuming characteristics that I previously described are entirely absent under water. The tiniest particles can be seen floating through the bleak, lifeless, still and crystal clear waters in the deep. This sequence is so perfectly fantastic that if you walked in at this moment and didn't know what you were watching, you'd assume that it was from 'Human Planet.' While the remainder of the disc most definitely is not, the initial dive sequence is perfect demo reel material.
Although I mentioned earlier that bands and noise may not have been present, I referred to specific scenes in those cases. Bands do appear from time to time. A few nighttime instances unmistakably offer noise. Around the 1:10:17 mark, an aerial shot features an odd stationary splotch in the center of the screen approximately one-third in from the left side of the screen. You can't miss it.
While the video quality may be stylistically flawed, the audio of 'Pioneer' is excellent. The solitary 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track (which features both English and Norwegian languages) makes great use of music, vocals and effects. The first aspect to shine forth is the effects mixing – and it never dies off. Be it a helicopter seamlessly imaging around the space or seagulls squawking from different channels, there's a nice full, balanced and dynamic nature to the mix. Thunder will crack and roll dynamically and raindrops and can be heard splashing all around. There so much detail, in fact, that you'll even hear never-seen rain gutter run-off splashing out of a drain onto pavement. Grand or miniscule, the effects mixing is very well thought out.
The vocals always carry a naturally realistic sound. While it reflects its environment – like the echoey nature of small metallic confined spaces or the hollow sound within a diving helmet – it nevers comes across as "low-budget" or "cheap." The environmental influence is never a negative attention-grabber, but an enhancer of the setting.
The score is every bit as strong as it could be. With a '70s flare, it's fitting and well-spread.
It's unfortunate when a movie features some breath-taking and never-before-seen type of imagery, only to be surrounded by run-of-the-mill material. The story and plot of 'Pioneer' isn't awful, but it's not ever close to being as strong as its brilliant supporting deep-sea diving material. It serves as a great history lesson about Norway's oil and wealth, but the overall screenplay isn't at all memorable. The diving sequence will never leave you, but the rest will likely fade away. The video quality is diminished by its style - with the exception of the underwater bits. Those moments are gorgeous, doing sweet justice for the unnerving imagery. The audio quality, however, is near-perfect. The speacial features are brief, but strong - but just like the movie itself, the best are those that revolve around diving. I highly recommend checking out 'Pioneer' at least once, but don't see it being anything you'll want to revisit again soon.