Disaster films used to be a peculiarly American product with titles as diverse and descriptive as Earthquake, Volcano, and Airport, but as CG became more common and internationally appreciated other countries jumped on the destruction bandwagon. China’s Aftershock and South Korea’s Tidal Wave are two relatively recent examples, but the latest entry comes from a country where disaster films and excessive CG effects are something of a rarity.
The rocky canyon walls of Norway’s fjords have contributed to disaster before, but the deaths and damage caused nearly a century ago have nearly faded from the small town of Geiranger’s consciousness. These days the community has transformed into a popular vacation spot for tourists hoping to get an up close look the country’s watery wonders. Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) is a geologist in the process of packing up his wife, teenage son, and daughter for a move to a bigger city and a more lucrative job, but he grows concerned after noticing odd results in their cliff-side sensors.
His worries are brushed away at first – no one ever believes the brilliant scientist before the disaster strikes – but his fears come true when the shifting earth causes a rock-slide which in turn sends an enormous wave sloshing its way towards town.
Director Roar Uthaug (Cold Prey) – I’ll pause while you take in the awesome, magical power of his name – delivers Norway’s first disaster film with The Wave, and while its scale is smaller than many of Hollywood’s efforts its effect is roughly the same. Solid CG effects, mass destruction, manipulated emotional beats – it’s everything you expect from a disaster film, nothing more and nothing less.
As with most examples of the genre, the focus of the film is our hero and his family, and happily they’re a pleasant bunch who feel convincing and worthy of our attention and affection. Kristian’s wife, Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), works at the local hotel while their kids, moody teen Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and spunky little Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) pine about having to say goodbye to their home. The film wisely spends time with them all in between teases of the disaster waiting in the wings, and while supporting characters are introduced it’s the family whose well-being concerns us most. What I’m saying is don’t get attached to any of those supporting characters.
Once the time comes for the wave to hit the film delivers with some impressive CG effects and thrilling moments of destruction. There are more than a few suspenseful beats too as locals and tourists alike scramble for the hills. Generally speaking films in this genre are somewhat predictable when it comes to who lives and dies, but that’s Hollywood’s doing more than anything else. Foreign films don’t have to operate by those same rules and expectations, and that knowledge makes some of the sequences more suspenseful than they’d otherwise be.
Uthaug – Roar to his friends – aims for and reaches the heights of big disaster films, but his film could have stood apart from the crowd by aiming even higher. Instead it feels content hitting the very familiar beats, and while it hits them well, the neatness of it all lessens the experience. We can almost see the boxes being checked along the way as certain character types meet their ends… or not.
The Wave has heart, laughs, and a big goddamn wave of destruction, and while we might have wanted more we don’t actually need more. Enjoy it for what it is.
The Upside: Hits all the genre beats well; fantastic CG effects; nice character work
The Downside: Never looks beyond those genre beats; a bit too tidy
Our review of The Wave originally ran during Fantastic Fest 2015, but we’re re-posting it as the film is now in limited release.