‘The Wave’ (2016) Review
Director: Roar Uthaug
Writers: John Kåre Raake, Harald Rosenløw-Eeg
Stars: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro
A small Norwegian village lies at the end of a popular tourist fjord where a massive rock cliff threatens to crumble into the bay, causing a tidal wave of epic destruction.
When one thinks of disaster films, the first name on the list isn’t usually Roar Uthaug. In fact, I’m willing to bet that’s a name you don’t think of with any genre. Well he’s working hard to change that. The Wave (Bølgen, its native Norwegian title) is a highly competent disaster movie that offers more than a few surprises, even if the story is one we’ve seen many, many times before.
Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner) is a staffer at the Geiranger Warning Center, a necessity in Gerianger since impending rockslides and their subsequent tsunamis are a constant threat and it takes a crew of around-the-clock experts to monitor the many fissures and cracks to evaluate their level of danger. Eikjord is concerned about some unusual activity with the groundwater and substratum, which he suspects is cause for serious alarm. Naturally, as is required in this kind of movie, no one believes him, especially the highly-trained crew who see exactly what he sees but don’t make the leap. We’ve learned through archival news footage that it’s not the first time a landslide has wrecked havoc on the town. Eikjord has very real warrant for his sense of coming doom and the 10-minute evacuation clock in place in case something bad does happen. He is supposed to be leaving for the city with his family, who are staying in the nearby hotel, right on the waterfront. He’s got a new job waiting but of course he is detained and therefore gets to be part of the big show because naturally, he’s right.
Uthaug clearly knows the formula, one that by now, is as closely followed as the makers of Coca-Cola. We are introduced to the threat by visual exposition, and then meet a lone figure who instinctively knows there is trouble while no one else does; that person’s family is in mortal danger, and there’s a worker meant to be watching the screens who is instead distracted by something else. There’s even a flock of birds hightailing it out of Dodge moments before it all comes to chaos. It’s all checked off the list. Yet somehow, it works. Very well. Despite the tropes of Hollywood disaster movies, this doesn’t feel like a Hollywood disaster movie, with a truly spectacular third act that generates genuine thrills and emotions.
The trouble with many disaster movies in the reliance on making the ‘disaster’ the star of the film. Heavy, special-effects ridden movies drag out the carnage for so long, it becomes numb, with mindless, impersonal devastation that has no meaning other than to try and outdo the previous film. The Wave doesn’t do that. The titular menace arrives with the right set up and comes ashore like a Kraken, the tentacles of spraying water reaching out like icy fingers of a hell beast. It is terrifying and surprisingly effective because, unlike earthquakes or asteroids, it has a living, breathing form of horrifying breadth and reach. But it doesn’t stick around. It leaves as quickly as it comes, sweeping once through the town and then disappears, leaving behind a swath of destruction.
The success of The Wave comes from an excellent script and some moments that are quite unexpected. For instance, when Eikjord manages to survive through what amounts to a near miraculous bit of luck, he, by instinct, goes to a radio to call into the warning station, safe far atop the mountain. When the operator answers, they are met only with cries as Eikjord breaks down. It’s powerful image, and one that is not unique in this story. The movie doesn’t shy away from these and other troubling human moments that feel authentic, given the situation. One scene in a flooded hotel basement between a mother, her son, and a panicked survivor is harrowing, and handled extremely well.
The film looks stunning, with cinematography by John Christian Rosenlund, showcasing the real Geiranger and surrounding landscape. Uthaug makes good use of the fjord both as a wonder to behold and beast to be feared. While there are a few too many visits to the disaster trope well, he makes his mark, keeping it fresh. He will soon be taking the reins of the Tomb Raider reboot, coming in 2017, and if this is anything of an indication of what to expect, Lara has nothing to fear. Nor do we.