By Elias Savada.
Disaster movies are a dime a dozen here in the United States. Catastrophes (usually) are Hollywood’s bread-and-butter…and your buttered popcorn. Now, head across the pond to Norway and you’ll — until now, never — have seen such large-scale destruction in a film, where the industry is known for Oscar-winning documentaries Kon-Tiki (1960, and its recreated 2013 version), Liv Ullmann dramas (The Emigrants, 1971; Face to Face, 1976), the marvelous Headhunters (2011), and, believe-it-or-not, two hilarious splatter movies about Nazi zombies. The Wave (Bølgen), Norway’s first and, so far, finest disaster flick was the nation’s 2015 official Oscar entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It just isn’t powerful enough to rock its way to the finals.
Director Roar Uthaug is no stranger to danger. He made a successful feature debut with the 2006 backwoods horror mystery drama Cold Prey (Fritt vitt). With his third film, Escape (Flukt, 2012), Uthaug flexed his muscles and roared out a 14th-century survival story. His new film, and first to gain a U.S. theatrical release via Magnolia, is incredibly beautiful and economically ominous from the start, even if it seems familiar in a Dante’s Peak (1997) kinda way. Its aerial shots shout out the breathtaking landscape of the country. Those majestic, snow-capped mountains, the scenic lakes, the lovely sunsets set in the picture-perfect postcard community of Geiranger. Gruffy geologist Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner) is a husband/father who can’t tell a plumber’s wrench from, well, whatever that is. He’s packing up his family from their soul-filled house for a brand new apartment apparently filled with app-friendly widgets, doodads, and the latest version of The Clapper. Anxious about a new place and a new position in the petroleum industry, he is ready to get outta town from his current job at the nearby early warning center, 335 feet above sea level.
It’s his last day at work as a mountain monitoring man. The backstory is that Kristian’s geological sensitivity knows those neighborhood, lakeside mountains are unstable beasties. Åkernset, one of the largest, has an ever-growing crack that is monitored 24/7. When the hill that Jack and Jill might be climbing up falls down, there’s the chance of tsunami (well, just look at the title of the movie, for heaven’s sake) that can arrive at the town’s dockside within 10 minutes. Academic papers have been written about this stuff. A rockslide plunging into those nooks and crannies called fjords would indeed be a death-defining cataclysm. Norway saw it happen in 1934 in Tafjord, and in Loen in 1905 and 1936 (newsreel footage of the former, faux or not, opens the film). So, audience, please: no loud noises. Let’s not scare the rocks.
Director Uthaug likes to build up his story (script by John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw Eeg, from a story by producer Martin Sundland, Raake, and Uthaug) quietly enough, before you-know-what comes a-tumbling down. He plays up the simple life. A pretty wife, Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), fixing the kitchen sink; a handsome teenage son, Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), not very happy about the move to far away Stavanger; Kristian’s bored co-worker playing computer solitaire before his other friends in the workplace toss him a farewell party; and neighbors who joke about Kristian trading in his casual clothing attire and neck-length hair for a close-cropped, business suit outfit.
The film’s set-up nears completion as Kristian’s thoughts waffle about that rock and Idun deals with check-ins as a receptionist at the town’s hotel. The tourist season, of course, is in full bloom. I liked the little touches and sideways glances Uthaug provides his actors that pulls the close-knit family apart in the time before the actual mountain collapse. That helps split the film in two storylines centering on the slow-to-awake hotel guests and other folks racing to gain higher ground on a clogged hillside roadway. At least they don’t have pets.
The calm-before-the-storm approach works nicely and the camera (exceptional work by John Christian Rosenlund, shooting in Norway and Romania) slowly tracks up an empty hotel hallway or gently zooms in on a concerned face. Everyone is eventually in place, including the cute girl that works the reception desk. The music, by Uthaug’s longtime collaborator Magnus Beite, nudges up the tension scale to a reading of escalating dread.
You may have spotted the 43-year-old Joner recently as Murphy in The Revenant (2015), but he’s been acting in Norwegian television series and movies for two decades, including the whimsical title character in a silly 2014 family film called Doctor Proctor’s Fart Powder. Torp also does a yeowoman’s job as the resourceful wife who needs to find cover against the encroaching water and how to deal with the antics of a very unruly hotel guest. Fans of Netflix’s Lilyhammer series (2012-14) will spot the familiar face of Fridtjov Såheim as a slightly oafish character. He continues to explore avenues of elevated sad sackdom, which he generously found in monumental proportions in The Art of Negative Thinking (2006).
The special effects are well done, the wall of water rivaling the Swedish film Force Majeure‘s (2014) avalanche moment, with full frontal H2O bearing down with brutish force. The widescreen shots of the gruesome death and destruction as the camera floats overhead reveal the mud and debris production design by Lina Nordqvist.
Unfortunately, the film bogs down with a perfunctory third act of search and rescue, just after the frantic climb out of harm’s way. The ending is begged, borrowed, and stolen from too many other films of similar ilk, chock full of overwrought melodrama hoping to wring out your tears. As the thrill ride of The Wave coasts back into a predicable finish, it unfortunately drowns in a well of genre convention, gasping for some creative air.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.