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THE WAVE (2015) review

March 2, 2016

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written by: John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg
produced by: Are Heidenstorm
directed by: Roar Uthaug
rated: R (for some language and disaster images)
runtime: 105 min.
U.S. release date: March 4, 2016 (limited) 

 

I’ve developed a certain proclivity toward the kind of disaster movies I see. I prefer them to be natural disasters, possibly based on actual events, but I’ve learned my limits thanks to last summer’s “San Andreas”, which left me enraged at all the disaster porn and the ridiculous, unrealistic aggrandizing of the antagonists we follow in these movies – American movies, mostly. So, when a foreign film called “The Wave” comes along, seemingly unannounced (although it did make it to the last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival), my curiosity was piqued. 

It revolves around a family trying to survive a localized tsunami, not the psychological study like “Force Majeure” or the grand immersion of “The Impossible”, but is somewhere between those two films and, say, a Roland Emmerich disaster flick like “2012”, which director Roar Uthaug is obviously influenced by – only not as cheesy.

What’s interesting about “The Wave” right away, is how it starts out by informing its audience that there is a fjord in western Norway prone to rockslides and on April 7th, 1934 one such event occurred that produced a tsunami that destroyed a town, killing forty people. That was just one of three such catastrophic events that took place in the Sunnmøre region of Møre og Romsdal county. Such information is meant to provide real-life context for what’s to come in the movie – even though we know they will be a 300-foot CGI wall of ice-cold water careening toward an idyllic coastal town, followed by death and destruction.

That town is called Geiranger – which is where filming took place – and it is indeed a small tourist town just below Åkerneset, next to a mountain range that is monitored closely by seismologists and geologists, due to its unstable history and predicted collapse that would one day create another disastrous tidal wave.

 

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One such geologist is Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), who has been an integral part of a team working at an early warning center in Geiranger and is now about to pack up his family and move to the big city and work for an oil company. His hope is for better opportunities for himself and wife, Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), who works as a concierge at the town hotel, and their two children, teenage boy, Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and younger daughter, Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). On the day of their scheduled departure, Kristian notices alarming irregular readings that indicate water is shifting the interior of the mountain, causing contractions.

At first, his colleagues scoff at his concerns, especially his boss, Arvid (Fridtjov Såheim), who thinks Kristian is overreacting. But when more readings point to a looming geological shift that can happen any minute….guess what?  It happens! An entire mountainside breaks off and crashes into the water below, building a massive tsunami that is heading in one direction: Geiranger.

 

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Kristian’s colleague sounds the alarm, which means the entire town has ten minutes to get to safety. Ten minutes! If we had that much time here in Chicago, there’d be a huge death toll.

When the wave hits, Kristian is with Julia and the two of them are driving up the nearest mountain road in attempt to elevate themselves above the wave. Of course, the road is jammed with other vehicles. Meanwhile, Idun has Sondre with her at her work and had intended to take the hotel shuttle out-of-town, which is what she told Kristian. That didn’t happen and the two of them barely make into a sealed tsunami bunker in the basement of the hotel, as the entire town is engulfed with water. With Julia safe with neighbors on the mountain road, Kristian makes his way back into town to search for his wife and son, hoping they’re still alive.

It’s obvious “The Wave” is heavily influenced by American disaster blockbusters – especially the ones from the 90s like Jan De Bont’s cow-flying “Twister”,  the laughable debacle “Volcano” with Tommy Lee Jones running from molten lava in L.A. and “Dante’s Peak” where Pierce Brosnan outraces an explosive Washington volcano in a Jeep. If Americans can survive natural disasters, why can’t Norweigians?

So yes, this family of four survives. That’s not a spoiler, that’s how these movies are. The difference here is how director Roar Uthaug and writers John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg steer clear from adding the usual unnecessary romances or cheesy humor – although, there are some ‘roll your eyes’ moments in which the characters we follow fall into conventions that we’re so used to in copycat American blockbusters, but for the most part what separates “The Wave” from those American disaster flicks is the how the characters and the actors portraying them feel like real people and not superheroes or shallow, unrealized roles.

 

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Amid all the familiar set-ups of the genre, at least the two leads played by Joner and Torp have solid chemistry and are more interesting to watch than most actors we see leading these kinds of movies. For a change, Torp’s Idun is not a damsel-in-distress and although she’s very capable and does need rescuing, she’s done everything she possibly could to keep herself and her son alive – including one irreversible desperate act that may shock some. Joker’s Kristian plays the role of one who would typically be the hero, but in a situation like this, where the antagonist is a 300-foot wave, our “hero” is just as desperate as anyone else. Despite his knowledge as a geologist, there was nothing Kristian could’ve done to prevent the inevitable – it was only a matter of time. Jones conveys an understanding of the helplessness of his situation. He tries to save a friend and fails, but still goes after his wife and son, yet even then is overwhelmed with emotion when he thinks they are dead.

That’s something we wouldn’t see if this movie starred Dwayne Johnson or Mark Wahlberg. Those two could hold their breath underwater longer, swim further and came out unscathed. That doesn’t happen in this movie, though. Sure, the husband and wife pause a bit too long when they find each other, but for most of Uthaug’s movie, there are moments where it is truly a challenge to predict what will happen to these characters next.

The one character that stays stuck in stereotypical characterization for most of the film is the headphone-wearing/skateboarding teenage son played by Jonas Hoff Oftebro, who has resentment toward his father for moving or something else that’s never developed. Honestly, given the short amount of time we have with the family, its okay that’s it underdeveloped, it’s just that the whole teen with an attitude is so overdone. Sure, it’s universal I suppose, but the character just seemed way too familiar. At least toward the end of the movie, we see the chip on his shoulder wash away – that’s what a tsunami will do, I guess.

What I appreciated most about “The Wave” is that the destruction never feels gratuitous. There’s never any extended sequences of, say – a ferry-boat crashing into a church or no pause to see a parent get swept away from their child –  just to manipulate the audience into shock or emotion. Utah stays with the family and a few supporting characters, with the camera alway focused on the action surrounding these characters or what they are seeing. There’s no montage of disaster from afar.

As for the visual effects, it probably helps some that the tsunami happened to take place after sundown, but the titular wave was nevertheless impressive. It never felt excessive or obviously CGI. It helps that the breathtaking cinematography by John Christian Rosenlund and creative editing from Christian Siebenherz, really keep viewers in the moment, even when we’re tossing and turning with Kristian inside a vehicle that’s being tossed around inside the wave.

“The Wave”, or “Bølgen” as it was called when it was released last summer in Norway, was the country’s official submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film last year, but probably didn’t make the cut because it resembled American summer blockbusters too closely. That’s probably a compliment for the director (who’ll soon be provided a rebooted Lara Croft). Anyway, this movie is better than any handful of disaster movies from the States. The movie ends with text that explains that Geiranger is under constant threat from the mountain Åkerneset which could erode into the fjord at any time, bringing us back to sobering reality despite its happy ending.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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