Review: ‘Pioneer’ plumbs murky depths of a scary diving challenge

A deep-sea diver in "Pioneer."
(Magnolia Pictures)
Los Angeles Times Film Critic

There’s genuine history behind Norway’s involving “Pioneer,” though this drama is not based on real events but rather “inspired” by them. That difference makes for a more absorbing film than it might otherwise have been.

That history involves the discovery in the 1970s of massive oil deposits in the North Sea. For several reasons — including that the pipeline had to be laid at the unheard-of depth of 1,600 feet — experienced foreign companies came in to help Norway with this difficult task.

Initially “Pioneer” plays like a tale of courage and derring-do, as teams of Norwegian and American divers push themselves to demonstrate that it was humanly possible to work at those frightening depths.

Top Norwegians are brothers Petter (Aksel Hennie) and Knut (Andre Eriksen), who enjoy the rush of dangerous endeavors. As for American Mike (Wes Bentley), he is a moody, hot-headed sort who seems to thrive on being aggrieved.


With the diving photographed at the bottom of a lake in Iceland where the water is famously clear, “Pioneer,” as directed by Erik Skjoldbjaerg, presents a good deal of edge-of-your-seat underwater situations.

But Skjoldbjaerg is the same man whose debut film was the taut 1997 “Insomnia” (which was remade by Christopher Nolan with Al Pacino as the lead), so it’s not surprising that he has something more in mind in than re-creating stirring events.

Inspired, he said in a director’s statement, by 1970s American paranoid thrillers like “The Conversation,” he’s taken off from reality and made a brooding psychological drama where everything that happens is open to multiple interpretations and figuring out who if anyone is on your side gets harder and harder to do.

Petter and Knut and Mike are all introduced participating in a test at 1,600 feet, a depth so disturbing to endure it runs the risk of crippling headaches and even hallucinations.

Later, relaxing at Knut’s home, where he lives with wife Maria (Stephanie Sigman, the star of Mexico’s “Miss Bala”) and his young son, Knut and Petter talk about the possibility of a life without diving.

Then everything changes. Something goes wrong at the next test dive, and even though top American Ferris (Stephen Lang) says finger-pointing will do no good, Petter is determined to find out what happened and why. Which turns out to be far more difficult than anticipated.

For not only are personal complications between individuals involved, there are also major geopolitical concerns. The North Sea oil deposits are so enormous Norway and the United States are jockeying to gain as much control over them as possible, which means that political wheeling and dealing, industrial espionage and even murder enter the equation.

Fighting against all this is Petter’s restless, relentless personality. He’s strongly played by Hennie, one of Norway’s top actors (he starred in “The Imitation Game” director Morten Tyldum’s excellent 2011 film “Headhunters”), and his drive keeps things moving along at an involving pace.


But in a murky, morally ambiguous world like the one “Pioneer” takes pains to create, even knowing if the truth is knowable, let alone finding it out, can be worth your life. As far as conspiracy thrillers go, “Pioneer” is as paranoid as they come.

Twitter: @KennethTuran




MPAA rating: None.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Landmark’s Nuart, West Los Angeles