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When you think of Scandinavian cinema, classic names like Bergman (Ingmar or Ingrid), Garbo, and Ullman come to mind. For modernists, Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg are the names to know. Either way, the films of that region are associated exclusively with high art, which makes Norway’s The Wave quite the anomaly. Director Roar Uthaug, taking his cues from American popcorn cinema, has crafted an effective disaster movie, and although many of the story beats are almost laughably rote, the film’s sheer competence and few Nordic quirks allow it to rise above its clichés.
Right from the start, we know what kind of film we’re in for. Kristoffer Joner stars as Kristian, the Guy Who Sees Disaster Coming But Gets Ignored by His Superiors. He’s a geologist living in the sleepy tourist town of Geiranger. An opening montage of news clips lays out the nightmare scenario: If a significant rockslide were to occur next to the Geiranger fjord, it would create a tidal wave big enough to destroy the town and everyone in it. When Kristian picks up some strange readings on his geologic sensors, you won’t need to guess where things are headed.
The filmmakers are smart enough to steal from the best. An early plot point is cribbed directly from Jaws, with Kristian’s superiors unwilling to press the panic button (literally, there is a panic button) at the risk of disturbing tourist season. Only when the rockslide has already occurred does the alarm sound, leaving hundreds of people fleeing for high ground. Included in this mix is Kristian’s family, composed of Sullen Teenage Son (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), Blandly Adorable Little Girl (Edith Haagenrud-Sande), and Wife Who Emasculates Husband by Fixing Stuff Around the House But Eventually Needs Rescuing (Ane Dahl Torp).
With such unimaginative characterization, the opening third of The Wave is a tough slog. The actors do their best to breathe life into the film, but they are really just killing time until they have a chance to react. It’s worth the wait. With the appearance of the wave itself, the film gains commensurate emotional power. Kristian and his daughter run for high ground, while his wife and son are trapped in a hotel. In just minutes, the wave hits and recedes, and Uthaug stages the action thrillingly without shying away from the darker realities. A scene in which Kristian discovers the grisly contents of a tour bus would probably not find its way into an American disaster film, nor would a painful, corrupting choice made by his wife to protect their son.
Yet perhaps the biggest reason the film works so much better than recent disaster flicks made stateside—San Andreas, for example—is that it keeps its focus where it belongs: on its intimate quartet of characters. The exigencies of Hollywood now require action films to continue upping the ante; it’s not a disaster unless we see millions of people die. The Wave benefits from its smallness. Only one town is at stake, and as far as our emotional investment goes, it’s really just one family, and that makes every moment matter. Like its namesake, the film picks up speed as it goes, even if it recedes just as quickly.
The Wave opens Friday at Landmark’s E Street Cinema.