Pioneer (15 cert, 111 mins) **
In the early Eighties, the discovery of vast natural energy reserves just beyond the Norwegian Trench sparked an underwater gold rush and, as the oddly developed Pioneer frames it, a race to the bottom in multiple senses. Touting an increasingly flimsy-seeming “based on true events” card as a pre-emptive defence, Erik Skjoldbaerg’s drama first appears as though it’s going to do for the lower depths what The Right Stuff did for outer space: celebrating those ragtag mavericks – here spearheaded by Aksel Hennie’s married-to-the-job test diver Petter – who endured extreme pressures to bring the glory (and gas) back home.
For a while, it’s watertight. Skjoldbaerg, who arguably kickstarted the Scandi crime phenomenon with 1997’s original Insomnia, capably establishes this damp, unglamorous blue-collar milieu, and there’s an inbuilt tension and anticipation as the leads are shuttled from lab test to diving bell and thence into the blue: the underwater photography is some of the best since James Cameron’s The Abyss. Yet after a fatal first descent, the film resurfaces as a decidedly low-wattage conspiracy thriller: Petter, who blacked out during the dive, finds he’s been made personally responsible for the accident, and so starts sniffing around the whole fishy set-up.
Thereafter, you spy Skjoldbaerg punching up what must have been some fairly mundane health-and-safety litigation into something more commercially appetising: we sense the Yankee corporation bankrolling the divers may not be benevolent just from the casting of rent-a-glower Wes Bentley and Avatar’s ever-hawkish Stephen Lang as its representatives. It’s a shame, because Hennie’s quiet, hangdog tenacity alone might have kept Pioneer afloat, but the more tangled the plot becomes, the more hackneyed Skjoldbaerg’s tactics get: by the time Lang has our hero forcibly sealed in a decompression chamber for interrogation, the whole project, gibbering and stammering, looks to have come down with a case of the bends.
Pioneer is now showing in selected cinemas.