With “The Wave,” awesomely named Norwegian helmer Roar Uthaug has made an equally impressive tsunami-peril thriller — a thunderous rumble-rumble-hustle-hustle-glub-glub nerve-racker that hits all the same beats as its Hollywood equivalents, right down to the implausible group hug at the end. Not to be confused with last year’s deeply upsetting Scandi avalanche-aftermath drama, “Force Majeure,” which delved into the profound psychological damage these disasters can also wreak, “The Wave” sticks mostly to the big-studio formula (albeit on a much smaller budget), introducing a handful of bland soon-to-be-victims before bombarding them with spectacular digital effects. Having already made a big splash in Norway, the country’s foreign-language Oscar submission may be too popcorn-populist to get nominated, but should attract decent specialty business when Magnolia releases Stateside.
Whereas most nature’s-angry movies exploit relatively far-fetched fears (“Sharknado,” anyone?), “The Wave” anticipates a dauntingly plausible disaster scenario. According to Uthaug, with 300 unstable mountainsides in Norway, sooner or later, his countrymen will have to contend with the sort of massive landslide and subsequent 250-foot tidal wave he so enthusiastically imagines crashing down into the fjord, sending a wall of water toward the sleepy tourist hamlet of Geiranger, where family-man geologist Kristian Eikfjord (Kristoffer Joner) has all but extricated his brood — working wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp); sullen, skaterboarding teenager son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and cheek-pinchably adorable young daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) — when the big one comes.
That means, had it taken place 24 hours earlier, Roar could have called his disaster movie “The Move,” as the first act centers on a perfectly normal family relocation that gets rapidly accelerated the instant the Akerneset emergency alarms go off. But first, we get to watch the family box up their belongings, as Kristian says his good-byes as work, Sondre huffs about how he won’t make friends in the new city and Julia begs to spend one last night in their old home — the sort of yawn-inducing luxuries that become perfectly laughable when nature decides to dump a jillion gallons of seething water on you.
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It should be said that Geiranger is a remarkably picturesque place to destroy, and d.p. John Christian Rosenlund’s widescreen lensing gives us plenty of opportunity to admire this soon-to-be-doomed corner of the world during the film’s pokey opening. Then, idly gazing over at the Jenga app on his son’s iPhone, Kristian realizes that the ground water measured by a series of Akerneset mountain gauges didn’t simply disappear, as his colleagues believe. Rather, it means the cables were cut! And if the cables were cut, then yes, Chicken Little, the sky is falling.
Uthaug must have tested the film and realized that this science-y eureka moment wasn’t quite as sexy as he’d first imagined. He keeps a scene in which Kristian tips over a stack of three-ring binders, Jenga-style, to demonstrate his theory that a landslide is imminent, but there are clear signs of reshoots in which Kristian and his co-worker helicopter off to a remote crevice, shimmy down its depths and retrieve a length of severed cable. If this were a Perry Mason episode, the frayed wire would be the big reveal (Dah-dah-dum! “Your honor, nature did it!”), but here, the scene appears awkwardly wedged in the middle of another where Kristian swings by the office and asks his kids to wait — and wait and wait — in the car.
No wonder Sondre decides to get out and rejoin his mother back at the hotel where she works, effectively splitting the family in two. When Kristian’s worst fears prove correct and the mountain does collapse — this time, crushing a co-worker caught in a now-redundant spelunking scene — dad and Julia are on one side of the scenic gorge above Geiranger, while Idun and Sondre are stuck in town, smack in the bull’s eye of where The Wave will do its worst damage. As if giving all of Geiranger’s residents 10 minutes’ warning to pack up their lives and run for the hills weren’t dramatic enough, screenwriters John Kare Rake and Harald Rosenlow Eeg decide to send Sondre down to the hotel basement, where the pouty teen dons his headphones, cranks up the volume and skateboards around halls that will soon become a watery grave.
So, at the moment audiences have been waiting for, in which a stunningly rendered slosh of angry-looking water comes barreling toward Geiranger, Kristian and Julia are running uphill (dad ducks into a car at the last minute to help an injured family friend, giving us a passenger-seat view of the big impact), while Idun and Sondre are searching for one another in the hotel. Somewhere in between, a cute co-worker Sondre had been flirting with mere hours before and few thousand other victims are drowning off-camera, more or less ignored as the film shifts into reunite-the-family mode.
Here, it’s hard not to think of J.A. Bayona’s vastly superior “The Impossible,” and while the human drama of “The Wave” feels emotionally puny compared to that post-tsunami family triumph, it should be said that Uthaug and his writing team have surpassed the low bar offered by nearly every other Hollywood disaster movie in recent memory (including Clint Eastwood’s waterlogged “Hereafter”).
Augmenting an immersive Dolby Atmos-mixed sound design with the bombast of a big orchestral score, Uthaug combines Norway-shot location footage with Romanian stagework, blending the two via handheld camerawork that draws us into the action. The helmer maximizes the few big visual effects shots the deceptively frugal production could afford before ending on a wide shot where our eyes drift from the battered survivors in the foreground to the CG-rendered carnage all around. Good for one last quake is the fun pre-credits factoid that “experts agree,” with so many unstable mountain in Norway, it’s a matter of when — not if — all we’ve just witnessed will actually come to pass. Let’s hope the documentary has a happier ending.