By Jordan Canahai
The disaster movie has been a genre that American cinema has commanded more or less exclusively since the 1970s. The popularity of star-studded disaster films such as The Poseidon Adventure and Airport, continued through to modern blockbusters such as Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. This makes the overall effectiveness of the Norwegian disaster film The Wave all the more surprising; especially given how closely it follows the genre’s formula of establishing a group of characters confined to a particular location and facing an imminent threat, before chaos ensues for the remaining 90 minutes.
The Wave concerns a geologist, Kristian (Kristoffer Joner of The Revenant, another film about man’s struggle against the natural world), who lives in Geiranger, a small tourist town in western Norway, with his wife and their younger daughter. Kristian and the family are in the process of moving. He’s just wrapped up his final day of work monitoring the mountains in the area for rockslides that could potentially cause a tsunami (spoiler alert: a rockslide causes a tsunami.) When disaster does strike, the family is separated, with mom holed up at the hotel where she’s worked as a night manager with a teenage guest, and dad and daughter occupying their empty home. A warning siren blares throughout the town, signaling that the family and other occupants must escape to high ground before the entire village is engulfed in the ensuing flood. From there the film’s action doesn’t let up until the credits roll.
Geiranger is of course a real tourist location, and doing some quick research online will confirm that the threat depicted in The Wave is indeed real. For all Norway’s scenic beauty, there have been multiple reported incidents of rockslides causing mass floodings in the Mountain regions, which have killed many in the country’s recorded history. The Wave was produced on a smaller scale and budget than many of its American CGI-laden disaster movie cousins like San Andreas, lending the film an intimacy which adds greatly to its overall affect. Some viewers may be disappointed The Wave doesn’t carry the same sense of oversized spectacle of a Hollywood blockbuster, but director Roar Uthuag (whose badass name suggests he can always fall back on a career fronting a Scandinavian death metal band should he abandon filmmaking) manages to skillfully orchestrate a series of tense set pieces which more than make up for the occasionally unconvincing digital effect shot. Some of the most harrowing sequences in The Wave take place during the aftermath of the action late in the film, in which our characters are trapped in the confined spaces of the hotel occupied by a crazed stranger (played by veteran Danish actor Thomas Bo Larson).
The most successful disaster movies have always worked due to the filmmaker’s ability to endear audiences to the individuals caught up in the havoc. The greatest strength of The Wave lies in how the thinly drawn characters are nevertheless given weight by the actors. The Wave is an earnest family drama at its heart, like Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, and is elevated above standard genre fare by the sincerity of its central performances. Joner in particular does some very strong work here as the mild-mannered patriarch, and newcomer Edith Haagenrude-Sande is also impressive as his daughter, who must rank among one of the more traumatized children in recent movies. Like the Spielberg film, there are also contrived moments where an audiences suspension-of-disbelief is tested beyond acceptable limits (the whole “last day in town” set-up alone is super contrived) and the Hollywood ending reeks of cliché. Still, sometimes familiarity isn’t necessarily a bad thing in cinema, as most audiences are likely to find such elements more comforting than off-putting. The Wave is further proof to American viewers that Norway and their surrounding neighbors can provide thrills to rival the best of Hollywood and not just Dogme 95-influenced arthouse fare.