[Warning — Mild Spoilers Ahead]
Families are, of course, a microcosm of humanity in disaster movies. Usually one of their number—invariably the father—comes across warning signs that something terrible threatens their species and/or planet. They are also usually promptly ignored. But when the cataclysm arrives, the family becomes separated and suffers. But by the end they rally back together, indicating hope for them and, by extension, the human race. Such films have been the bread-and-butter of Roland Emmerich’s entire career, the most notable entries being mega-blockbusters Independence Day (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and 2012 (2009). The last one proves the most preposterous as a single family led by John Cusack somehow weathers a globe-trotting expedition as the planet begins to collapse around them and billions die.
Roar Uthaug’s The Wave, billed as the first ever Scandinavian disaster movie, also centers on a single family caught in the middle of a horrific natural disaster. But unlike many of the film’s Hollywood brethren, The Wave has the good sense to consolidate both the disaster and the narrative to a single geographic location. There are no grandiose speeches by beleaguered world leaders, no destructions of iconic international landmarks, no CGI porn of populated metropolises being annihilated. Yet the film left me more excited and thrilled than any of its American contemporaries have in years.
A country of mountains, rockslides are one of Norway’s deadliest natural disasters. Over 300 mountainsides have been designated as unstable—the question isn’t if they will collapse, but when? One of the most massive is Åkerneset, a towering goliath overlooking Geiranger, a picturesque town and popular tourist destination. Eventually it will crumble, its tumbling rocks creating a tsunami which will wipe Geiranger from the face of the map ten minutes after impact. This set-up may be the best part of the film: a situation both scientifically plausible and uniquely Scandinavian. Unlike stories of meteoric impacts, global warming, and super-viruses, The Wave could only take place in Norway.
Yet despite my admiration, The Wave still approaches its story with woeful clichés. The protagonist, geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), finds himself and his family trapped in the path of the tsunami the day after he retires from the Åkerneset monitoring station—his co-workers even made him a cake and threw him a going-away party his last day there. His marriage is strained over his spending so much time at the office, his teenage son gloomy and resentful over the move to a new town for Kristian’s new job, his young daughter wide-eyed and trembling in the face of fear. Kristian’s superiors ignore his warnings until it’s too late, the individual family members become separated shortly before the tsunami hits, and the third act focuses almost exclusively on Kristian trying to save them.
Mercifully, what The Wave lacks in originality it makes up for in competence and craftsmanship.The actual disaster doesn’t happen until nearly the halfway point, allowing the audience to fester in expertly manicured anxiety and suspense. The ticking clock idea involving the ten minute tsunami warning was absolutely ingenious. And for a film with such a preposterously low budget, the special effects are tremendous. I don’t know how they managed to create such a convincing hellscape of destruction and death in the third act for their characters to inhabit, but Hollywood should pay attention and take notes.