Although anticipated, no one is really ready when the mountain pass above the scenic, narrow Norwegian fjord Geiranger, collapses and creates an 85-meter high violent tsunami. A geologist is one of those caught in the middle of it.
August 28, 2015 (Norway)
April 29, 2016 (USA)
Rated R for some language and disaster images.
John Kåre Raake, Harald Rosenløw-Eeg
Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro
Written by: Monte Light
Helmed by Roar Uthaug, (director of the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot), The Wave is about a Norwegian mountain that collapses into a nearby lake. It causes a massive tsunami that threatens the nearby village. With only ten minutes to escape, Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), his wife Idun (Fridtjov Såheim), and their two children must get to the mountains before the wave drowns them.
As a geologist, Kristian senses something is wrong with the mountain. The plates are shifting too fast. His team has been drilling holes to sink gages that will anticipate an avalanche, but the drilling might have inadvertently caused the instability. Kristian is hard-pressed to convince any of his fellow scientists of this though. It is the tourist season after all, and that just wouldn’t look good. As his boss explains, in so many words… “You yell avalanche, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”
I kid of course, but director Uthaug embraces these Hollywood tropes willingly, (there are overt allusions to Jaws, Dante’s Peak, Twister). The film refuses to exist in a vacuum, and that’s exactly what makes it great. It’s fun to watch Uthaug subvert the disaster film clichés. Everything old is new again in the hands of a savvy filmmaker.
When we meet the protagonist, I’m happy it’s a gangly actor like Kristoffer Joiner, rather than say Tom Cruise or The Rock. I genuinely buy him as an everyman. His large eyes show so much vulnerability. As Kristian gets more wrapped up in the mystery of the mountain, he neglects his kids. His wife teases him about that “furrowed brow” of his. He’d rather call a plumber than find a wrench in his toolbox. This is not an indestructible badass. This is a normal guy with everything to lose.
The photography is gorgeous. Uthaug uses his go-to cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund. There are a lot of helicopter shots that contrast the smallness of the people to the sheer bigness of the landscape. Fog hangs over the mountain in a lot of scenes. It’s all very tranquil, except for the menacing musical score. “I like it here,” Kristian is told by his teenage son. “It’s safe. It’s home.”
What doesn’t work? Well, when the tsunami hits, the CGI is spotty. Some shots work better than others. It’s a shame that a movie that goes above and beyond with its realism has to settle for effects that could very easily take you out of the experience if you let them. That’s the price of working without a large budget, a luxury Hollywood disaster films often squander. But here’s the thing…it doesn’t matter. The characters are empathetic, the satire is biting, and the pacing is flawless. I want Kristian to be vindicated. I want the family to get out alive.
There are newsreels of real Norwegian avalanches, emergency-procedure manuals are poured over endlessly, seismic numbers spike dramatically. This ramps up the tension in the first half. It’s the kind of realism borrowed straight from 1970s paranoid thrillers like The China Syndrome.
In the second half, everything goes topsy-turvy. That’s when the production design really gets to shine. Uthaug creates post-disaster devastation so believable that it will make you cry. What were once recognizable landmarks in the first half suddenly twist into surreal nightmares. People wander through the fog like zombies, calling out the names of loved ones and getting no response. There is a particularly memorable sequence where Kristian desperately searches for his family in an upended bus littered with bodies. It’s all the more sad because ten minutes earlier they were all alive.
This is not a Gorehound’s movie. There is only one shot of a bloody corpse, with a mangled arm facing the wrong way. The first scene of any body-horror happens well after the thirty minute mark, and it’s only shown from far away. In that sense, The Wave is more of a psychological thriller. The terror comes from the pain of people dwarfed by the natural order of things.
The performances are all stellar across the board, but the true standout is Ane Dahl Torp as Idun, the wife. She and her son get trapped in a hotel basement with the water rising. She fights tooth-and-nail to protect him. I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll just say Torp is ferocious, as forceful a mother as Mother Nature. I may not have liked it, but I understood her fateful decision, given the dire circumstances.
Great performances and a build-up of tension can’t overcome a cookie-cutter ending though. Yes, the film fumbles at the finish line. Uthaug can only subvert disaster clichés for so long before falling into one. Thankfully, the family is three-dimensional enough that I’m willing to accept a little contrived melodrama.
The Wave asks what kind of moral center we really have when faced with survival. We’d like to think our morals don’t change, that we would do the right thing in a crisis. Kristian journeys from cowardice to heroism because he loves his family. Idun seems to be a woman of graciousness and hospitality. But when it comes down to who lives and who dies, Idun’s own son realizes he’s looking at a stranger. In that sense, this is an incredibly scary movie.
The Wave is currently available on VOD/DVD. The film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, but sadly it made only a couple thousand in the United States. I’d say now is the perfect time for the Horror Freaks to get behind this one. With a script this smart, it proves a disaster film doesn’t have to be cheesy, and bigger isn’t always better.