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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Pioneer (Blu-ray)
Pioneer (Blu-ray)
Magnolia Home Entertainment // R // March 10, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted March 11, 2015 | E-mail the Author

Oil is very serious business, so it's no surprise that Erik Skjoldbjerg's Pioneer (2013) uses it to turn real-world history into a compelling, tightly-wound thriller. We're thrown into the deep end almost immediately as Norwegian commercial divers Petter (Aksel Hennie) and his brother Knut (Andre Eriksen) are undergoing a test run with American divers to work together on a massive underwater pipeline that leads to untold riches for one or both countries. With the benefit of a new gas mixture that helps the divers deal with massive deep-water pressure changes, they're eventually cleared for the real dive...which goes massively wrong, and leaves Petter without a brother. Convinced that there's more to Knut's death than simple human error, Petter embarks on a one-man crusade to uncover the truth instead of believing scapegoat stories or taking a quiet payoff. He's probably safer in the ocean, though.

Much of the reason why Pioneer works so effectively as a tense, twisting thriller is due to the lead performance of Aksel Hennie, whose natural charisma pairs well with the role of a man trapped in the outer edge of this massive and layered conspiracy; he's driven by the memory of his brother first, justice second, and it's not long before both elusive items bleed together. He constantly struggles with himself (regret, frustration, blackouts) and others (trust, disappointment, dead-end leads) and you can see the wear and tear on Petter's face as the walls close in. Stephen Lang also impresses as the American businessman Ferris, and Wes Bentley turns in a solid performance as competing American diver Mike. Stephanie Sigman does what she can with the mostly thankless role of Knut's widow Maria, but she seems to exist solely as a familiar face and financial plot device after her husband's fateful accident.

Maria's role isn't the only added weight that drags down certain portions of Pioneer, however. There's a vast, global conspiracy at the heart of this story and it veers off the rails late into the third act. In fact, just about everything that happens after Petter is locked inside a test chamber and almost gassed to death is too much to swallow; it's more Die Hard With a Vengeance than the down-to-earth original, almost making us think that a ramped-up sequel accidentally started before the credits roll. Long before that, there are a few too many twists and dead ends, and too much reliance on Petter's disorienting blackouts; the first few are incredibly effective and others create their own brand of tension and unpredictability, but Pioneer dips into this well too many times and slightly suffers for it.

By and large, however, Erik Skjoldbjerg's Pioneer keeps its head above water and delivers more than enough suspense, drama, and thrills to help us forget about the handful of things that don't work quite as well. It's almost worth watching for Hennie's performance alone, cementing him as a capable leading man in future productions (American audiences might know Hennie from a supporting performance in last year's Hercules, but we'll let that one slide). In the meantime, Magnolia Entertainment's Blu-ray is definitely worth a look, whether you're interested in seeing the original before the Clooney-produced remake...or you're just a sucker for tightly-focused thrillers, like I am. Either way, it's a solid disc that slightly improves upon Arrow Video's Region B Blu-ray, released in August of last year.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of Pioneer is a solid effort that presents the difficult source material almost perfectly. Not surprisingly, the underwater sequences exhibit a few trouble spots here and there, but it's no fault of the disc: in an accompanying bonus feature, we learn about the difficulty of shooting underwater and how a lack of care can yield disastrous results. Nighttime and action sequences occasionally show noise and light banding, while shadow detail is deep but slightly inconsistent. Archival news footage, for whatever reason, is blown up and cropped tightly, amplifying source material flaws. But I'm nitpicking: on the whole, Pioneer looks great in high definition and serves up crisp image detail, strong textures, pleasing colors, and little in the way of digital imperfections. In almost every regard, fans should be pleased with the film's ambition and execution.

DISCLAIMER: These resized and compressed promotional images do not represent the Blu-ray Disc under review.

Although Arrow's Region B Blu-ray is equipped with a full-bodied 7.1 track, this Region A disc's only offering is a Norwegian/English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix...but depending on your setup, you may not miss the extra channels. Either way, Pioneer sounds absolutely fantastic from start to finish: dialogue is crisp and clear, the soundtrack is extremely dynamic, channel separation and low end are ample, and the film's extensive use of disorienting effects frequently surrounds the listener with all manner of sonic textures. In all honestly, it's the kind of audio presentation that can almost be distracting in its level of detail, presence, and potency, but it does the film great justice and will have no trouble winning over first-time viewers. Optional English (foreign dialogue and text translation only), English SDH (full subtitles), and Spanish subtitles have been included during the main feature.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The interface offers a clean layout and simple navigation, though I'll admit that I almost passed right over one or two bonus features along the way. Separate menus are offered for chapter selection, audio/subtitle setup, extras, and bookmark settings. This one-disc release is housed in an eco-friendly keepcase with no insert and cover artwork that's somewhat faithful to the original movie poster. Again, the disc is locked for Region A players only.

Bonus Features

First up is a rounded collection of brief Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes including "Reflecting on the Cast", "The Crash", "Locations and Production Design", "Diving", and "The Accident" (27:13 total). These are largely self-explanatory on paper, but they go into a good amount of detail and include a nice amount of on-set footage...including the Jeep crash that almost killed star Aksel Hennie (and was left in the movie). Separate interview clips with Hennie, Wes Bentley, director Erik Skjoldbjerg, producer Christian Fredrik Martin are also part of these five featurettes.

A handful of like-minded features are also here. "Making of Pioneer: A Dive Into the Depths of the Sea" (7:43) focuses more on the technical expertise needed during the film's brief but dangerous underwater sequences, from retrofitting vintage equipment to handling the cinematography. "Working on Pioneer" (6:12) serves up separate interviews with co-stars Stephanie Sigman ("Maria") and Stephen Lang ("Ferris"), who share their first encounters with the director and their on-set experiences. Finally, "AXS TV: A Look at Pioneer" (2:13) is more of a throwaway promotional piece that briefly summarizes the plot and recycles footage from the Sigman and Lang interviews.

This is a decent collection of supplements (and certainly better than Arrow's Region B disc , which didn't include any), but the lack of historical perspective is disappointing. Don't get me wrong: Pioneer was undoubtedly a tough film to shoot and these behind-the-scenes clips are nice, but the core story is its more intriguing element and deserves further exploration. All extras are presented in 1080p and include optional subtitles when necessary.

Final Thoughts

Unpredictable and well-acted, Pioneer offers an engaging story that's more of a one-man crusade than your average character-driven drama. Prolific actor Aksel Hennie leads a strong cast through this linear story filled with plenty of twists and turns, dark corners, and red herrings; based on real-world events that led to Norway's untold oil riches during the last several decades, Pioneer speeds along with few roadblocks and thankfully allows first-time viewers to connect some of the dots. Magnolia Entertainment's Blu-ray package arrives several months after Arrow's Region B disc, and the results are largely worth the wait: we're treated to a very good A/V presentation (albeit with a slightly scaled-back audio mix) and we actually get some nice bonus features, too. Firmly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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