Since the dawn of the genre back in the ’70s, the most successful disaster movies pray on fears by exploiting realities. If a disaster of this nature could happen, then let’s show what happens if it did happen. One of the best of these movies I’ve seen in a long time is the Norwegian film The Wave—the first of its kind for the country—which feels scarily real…until it doesn’t.
Directed by the awesomely named Roar Uthaug, The Wave (or Bølgen, as it’s called in Norwegian) makes the most of its gorgeous landscape and creates a story that feels large while depicting an area and community that is relatively small. We follow one main family as they fight to survive the wrath of the titular (and scientifically accurate) natural disaster, from which few people we meet along the way are safe. But the film’s well-earned verisimilitude is nevertheless undercut toward the end by succumbing to the oldest of old disaster movie tropes.
The film takes place on the scenic and narrow fjord of Geiranger, on which a community has sprung up and lives on the sides of cliffs and mountain roads. You even apparently need to take a barge ferry to get to greater civilization. Our hero is Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), a scientist who works for the oil company stationed a the tip of Åkneset, the mountain pass where all the bad stuff happens. He’s about to leave and take his family to a bigger city to work in a safer job… but he just can’t shake the niggling feeling that some of these readings are going to cause a major disaster.
Well, because the movie isn’t called Things Go Smoothly, you can probably assume that Kristian’s suspicions turn out to be correct—and he’s the only one who saw that coming. You see, the mountain’s cracks are contracting, not expanding, which then causes a massive, half-the-mountain-face rockslide to fall directly into the ocean. Thanks to Archimedes and his theory of displacement, we know that all that water has to go somewhere—it goes straight for Geiranger, and people only have 40 minutes to get to a high enough elevation. To make matters worse, Kristian’s wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) who works at a hotel on the mountainside, is trying to find their teenage son and get him to safety.
The key to any good disaster movie is the setup, and the filmmakers do a very good job of making it feel real, of keeping the family’s plight from feeling overwrought, and of establishing the danger as feeling imminent but not out of nowhere. There’s cause and effect. Even one of the most overused tropes—that the hero is the only one who knows the disaster is coming, and nobody believes him—doesn’t feel too forced in this case because they’ve set up what kind of man he is and what kind of man his disbelieving superior is. It all fits. And the big effects shots of the wave itself are equally well handled and don’t overdo it.
Where my problem really lies comes from the movie rescinding one of the promises it makes early on. This is one of the least sentimental movies of the genre I think I’ve ever seen. Characters are introduced who are perfectly nice, good people, and not only do they die, they die in cold, random ways. The thought of what those characters might have done with their lives and relationships if the disaster had never happened is a chilling reminder that these kinds of real life incidents don’t follow any plot, and don’t care if you have a storyline left to resolve. Some of them aren’t even killed onscreen but are found later in the wreckage to drive home just how little it matters to a wave who gets caught in it. That stuff I found very refreshing.
It’s a shame, then, that it completely abandons that kind of blind detachment when it comes to the main character and his family. They’re somehow immune to many of the surely-you’re-going-to-die problems just because they’re related to the hero. This undercuts an otherwise very realistic-feeling movie about the senselessness and callousness of nature. Anybody can survive if the narrative needs them to.
That aside, I still thought the movie mostly worked. It’s sort of a delight as an American to hear people speaking Norwegian until they need to swear, which they do in English. But although the filmmaking and performances were great, The Wave could have been so much more impactful if only it had stuck to its guns a bit more.
Image: Fantefilm/Magnolia Pictures
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!