The disaster movie is an odd genre when you think about it. Turning destruction and mass death into popcorn-friendly spectacle, these films primarily exist to awe us with their state-of-the-art special effects while keeping us at arms-length from the actual horror we are ostensibly experiencing. A film like “The Day After Tomorrow” can kill off thousands of people in a computer-generated superstorm with nary a drop of blood crossing the screen.
“The Wave”—billed as Norway’s first-ever disaster movie—falls into many of the same traps, but it attempts to do something slightly different. By scaling down the disaster and focusing on a relatively small set of characters (as opposed to the half dozen or so storylines many disaster flicks throw at us), director Roar Uthaug replaces grand spectacle with pathos. While “The Wave” certainly contains its fair share of destruction, it doesn’t revel in the carnage quite so much as its Hollywood counterparts. Instead, the film is more interested in the emotional effects of disaster on a family. The film’s drama is too mired in cliches to fully pull off that trick, but Uthaug deploys these tropes with a refreshing genuineness.
That family consists of father Kristian (Kristoffer Joner, sporting an impressively bad haircut), mother Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), and little girl Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande). They live in Geiranger, a small tourist town located in the gorgeous fjords of Norway. (Uthaug’s numerous helicopter shots of cars driving through the mountains near Geiranger offer ample opportunity to take in the majestic landscape.) I’m not sure why anyone would want to leave this slice of paradise, but Kristian has landed a big oil job in the big city, and the family is packing up to move. Kristian has left his job at a government warning site that monitors Åkerneset, a mountain overlooking the town that could collapse at any time.
Kristian is worried that the disaster may happen sooner rather than later, and he keeps annoying his former colleagues with his calls to check out some troubling activity in the crevice near the mountain. In classic disaster-movie fashion, Kristian’s boss refuses to put out a warning call because it’s the height of tourist season. One would think that a guy whose sole job is to monitor a mountain for any signs of danger would be more responsive to clear signs of imminent collapse, but alas!
As anyone reading this can probably guess, the mountain does fall before our family can leave town, causing a massive wave that will submerge the town in a matter of minutes. When the wave hits, Kristian and Julia are at their house, while Idun and Sondre are at the hotel where Idun works. They have only ten minutes to escape to higher ground.
For a movie of this budget (under $6 million, a pittance by Hollywood standards), the titular wave is rendered in surprisingly credible CGI. It doesn’t exactly look realistic, but it is strangely evocative, particularly in a well-executed shot of the impending water in a car’s side-view mirror. Another scene in which Kristian rows back to the hotel to save his wife and son has an almost stygian beauty to it. I was reminded in these scenes of “Pompeii,” a deeply silly movie which nevertheless found a surprising beauty in its special effects.
“The Wave” contains scarcely a moment or idea that hasn’t been borrowed from some other film. It even pulls out the old room-slowly-filling-up-with-water trick, a suspense trope which has been around at least since 1933’s “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.” But, for the most part, Uthaug manages to make them work. By underplaying the film’s big dramatic moments, Uthaug manages to enliven some pretty tired tropes. While Hollywood disaster movies have grown more and more massive, to the point where anything less than the complete annihilation of the Earth seems quaint, “The Wave” embraces a small-scale tragedy and situates it around a single family. The result is a satisfyingly bantamweight pleasure, the rare disaster movie that favors intimacy over grandiosity.