I’m a professing disaster movie junkie. I admit it. I can’t help myself. For some inexplicable reason I always manage to find some degree of entertainment even from the flimsiest of the genre’s offering. And while many of these movies are admittedly bad, others can be top notch edge-of-your-seaters when they give us an interesting scenario and characters to actually care about.
Norwegian director Roar Uthaug gives us such a movie with “The Wave”. Called Norway’s first ever disaster movie, “The Wave” clearly pulls from western influences while at the same time bucking numerous parts of the tired Hollywood formula. Many things will strike a familiar chord – ignored warnings, a natural catastrophe, a family in peril. But it’s the film’s ability to competently and effectively craft something fresh and unique that leaves a much bigger impression.
Knowing that the film is not so much based on a specific past event but on a near certain future one adds a sobering perspective. It’s set in Geiranger, a tourist town threatened by the unstable Åkerneset mountain. Geologists believe the gigantic mountainside will one day crash into the fjord below spawning a massive tsunami. The people of Geiranger would have an estimated ten minutes to evacuate and get to safe heights. No one knows when it will happen, only that it will.
Uthaug has said that the frightening reality of the situation influenced how he told this story. He felt obligated to represent the potential catastrophe honestly and without exploiting the true-to-life dangers facing the people of Geiranger. Knowing the collapse will eventually happen is concerning. Wondering if the people will have enough warning to escape is terrifying.
Kristoffer Joner plays Kristian, a geologist whose team is tasked with monitoring Åkerneset and issuing the warning if a collapse ever happens. Recently Kristian took a job in the oil business and is preparing to leave Geiranger with his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), frustrated teenaged son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), and adorable young daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). But leaving the lure of the mountain proves to be a difficult task.
What happens next shouldn’t surprise you. The mountainside crumbles into the fjord sending an 80 foot wave barreling towards Geiranger. What is surprising is seeing a disaster film handle the entire thing with such smarts. First is how Uthaug handles the buildup. The setup to the mountain collapse is absolutely crucial. The film’s opening 45 minutes is deliberate and focused, steadily building the tension and raising extremely high stakes for the small community of Geiranger.
Another key is the film’s willingness to give us characters to care about. There are no caricatures here. There is a very humanistic approach to to how Kristian and his family are presented and developed. They are individually down to earth and are never exaggerated for the sake of drama. The performances, particularly from Joner and Torp, keep the characters authentic and grounded.
Even the catastrophic wave itself is dealt with on a human scale. The visual effects are incredible and represent the wave as ominous and deadly. But unlike most of these genre films, there isn’t a dependence on vividly showing off their digital creation. Instead the intensity boils its hottest in the moments where the wave isn’t shown, as people desperately try to get to safety. Even more importantly the camera doesn’t revel in the death and destruction. So many disaster flicks bombard us with their digital devastation – crumbling buildings, massive body counts, etc. This film knows it doesn’t need to do that in order to be effective.
What Roar Uthaug and company have given us is a film that manages to be unashamedly a disaster movie while at the same time distinguishing itself as something unique. The result is a fabulous, intense, nailbiter that more often than not stays within the realm of plausibility. Then add in the ominous warning that this event could legitimately happen in the future. That makes it all the more effective.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS