In a long tradition of dramas based on the conflict of man vs. nature vs. society, there’s often something in the water.
In Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People, a doctor came into conflict with city leaders when he declared its famous public baths contaminated. In Jaws, the chief of police clashed with officials of his resort island when he warned of a killer shark lurking off the beach during high tourist season. Now, in The Wave, a geologist meets resistance when he predicts that one of the mountains bordering a scenic fjord will soon tumble, creating a tsunami that will destroy the town on its shore.
His name is Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), and the movie’s title tells you that he’s right. Billed as Norway’s first disaster movie, it’s a nice departure from the sort of colossal, CG fests Hollywood churns out, directed by such highly paid hacks as Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich. The movie ramps up true suspense because for much of the time it remains human-scaled. (FYI, tsunami disasters in fjords are a real thing, with a couple on the books in the 20th century.)
We get to know Kristian and his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), who create a lovely, sexy, lived-in rapport as a married couple still into each other. They have two kids — a teenage boy and a younger girl, a nice blend of annoying and nice — and they’re all busy packing up the house to move to the big city of Stavanger.
Kristian has a new job there, but the kids aren’t thrilled to leave the home they know (especially the boy). You can’t really blame them, given the film’s stunning aerial shots of the Åkneset mountain pass and the Geiranger fjord below. (Before all wet hell breaks loose, The Wave serves as a great marketing tool for the Norwegian tourism board.)
On his last workday at the Early Warning Center (perched 102 meters above sea level, a notable plot point) Kristian is feted at a farewell lunch by his geology colleagues. They’re a bunch of nicely drawn characters, including the bearish, middle-aged Arvid (Fridtjov Såheim) and the younger Jacob (Arthur Berning). They all love Kristian … but it’s clear they think he takes his job a little too seriously. When he voices alarm at unusual fluctuations in groundwater measurements, his coworkers’ response is a genial, collective eye roll.
We know where this is going, of course: the big wet. Getting there first requires a couple of nerve-grinding descents with the geologists into a sweaty mountain crevasse to check readings on-site. It also demands that Kristian’s family split in two to maximize tension once that mountain takes its tumble and the fjord’s water rears to nearly match its height. Wife Idun and her son find themselves at sea level, in the hotel where she works. Kristian and daughter wind up trying to get to high ground on a road clogged with traffic.
So far, so gripping. The computer-generated effects here are eerie and convincing as the tsunami sweeps through in the deepest part of the night. Director Roar Uthaug films the ruined town in the aftermath as a striking, fire-and-water afterworld.
But in the last half hour, The Wave succumbs to a few too many action-movie tropes we’re overfamiliar with: the panicky challenge of surviving in a room filling with water, and worst of all, the CPR resurrection of a character who is well past the revival stage. (Maybe actors just really love to spit up water and gasp explosively.)
Oh, and maybe the biggest flaw of all? Though a toppling behemoth of stone, dirt and vegetation has smashed into a muddy, rocky, silt-and-fish-filled body of water, the resulting floodwaters remain as clear (and camera-friendly) as a tank of Evian water. The same implausibility marred the so-so American flood thriller Heavy Rain in 1998. That’s not a natural disaster. That’s a movie miracle.
The Wave. With Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp. Directed by Roar Uthaug. In Norwegian with subtitles. Rated R. 104 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.