In 2015, Roar Uthaug The Wave made waves—pun not intended—as the self-proclaimed first ever Scandinavian disaster movie. Borrowing heavily from the Roland Emmerich playbook, it followed the fate of a single family trapped in the wake of a 260+ foot tidal wave caused by a fjord rockslide near Geiranger, Norway. Thanks to its limited scope—it takes place almost entirely in one city—and small cast of characters, Uthaug was able to stretch his paltry $6 million budget to achieve a film that for all intents and purposes looked the part of a Hollywood blockbuster. But what truly elevated it above the sea of low-budget genre pablum was its ingenious use of two ticking clocks, one figurative, the other literal. The former saw its protagonist, geologist Kristian Eikjork (Kristoffer Joner), struggle to warn Geiranger of a possible tsunami when he discovers an imminent rockslide. The latter, literal clock, in a turn that would make Hitchcock squirm with envy, involved a ten minute tsunami warning after the rockslide, forcing the protagonists to helplessly watch the unprepared city scramble to evacuate as the wall of water inched its way closer.
The film was modest box office hit, making back double its budget and getting chosen as Norway’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Clearly hoping to match said success, a sequel was made: John Andreas Andersen’s The Quake. Set three years after The Wave, it returns to Kristian only to find him a guilt-ridden recluse, cut-off from his family in a mountainside cabin where he agonizes over a wall of newspaper clippings of people he couldn’t save in the first film. Eventually a stack of research documents from an ex-colleague plops onto his desk, predicting an earthquake bigger than the magnitude 5.4 event that savaged Oslo in 1904. From there the film shamelessly repeats the first movie: Kristian’s evidence and pleas get ignored by other experts, he struggles to notify his family to evacuate the capital, and they all invariably get trapped in the most dramatically inconvenient places possible when the earthquake actually hits.
Watching The Quake, it’s astonishing to see how little the film seems to care about its plotting once the earthquake comes into focus. There’s an almost complete demarcation between both halves of the movie when an initial warning quake hits exactly 45 minutes in. The first half serves as an elegiac mood piece as it watches Kristian’s feeble attempts to reconnect with his family after so many years of isolation. The opening scenes where his visiting daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) fights to break through his mask of psychological self-flagellation are difficult to watch. (In a move instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the films of Studio Ghibli, she shows her love by cleaning his house and making him breakfast, both of which he forces himself to ignore.) Furthermore, as the various puzzle pieces of Kristian’s investigation start falling into place, disturbing corporate thriller overtones emerge: he discovers that his ex-colleague mysteriously died in an accident in a tunnel being built by a construction company suspiciously trying to hide evidence that their projects might be disturbing the local geological foundation.
But all this emotional nuance and corporate espionage mystique gets thrown out the window when the quake arrives, throwing the cast into a succession of admittedly effective disaster set-pieces. One sequence where Kristian and his estranged wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) struggle to escape a collapsing elevator shaft is vertigo-inducing sublimity. But since these scenes are so patiently disconnected from the rest of the film, they exist in a kind of emotional vacuum, allowing us to appreciate them for their craftsmanship without leaving any kind of genuine impact.
The Quake tries to mix popcorn disaster movie fun with introspective family drama, rich with observations about guilt and self-forgiveness before losing interest in them and falling back on predictable genre fluff. The first film never really attempted to be anything more than a Scandinavian adaptation of beloved Hollywood imports, but Andersen clearly wanted more. It’s a shame his film surrendered to its own impatience to get to the “good stuff.” It feels like whole chunks of the movie are missing. We never even get resolutions to the corrupt construction company and possibly-murdered ex-colleague subplots!