Norway gets the old-fashioned disaster film genre up on its feet again with a well-made, scary story set in a Northern fjord, where a devastating tsunami is a genuine threat. Fine acting by fresh faces helps as well — with no BS or hype to get in the way, we find ourselves as anxious as the characters in the movie.
Magnolia Home Entertainment
2015 / Color / 2:39 widescreen / 105 min. / Bølgen / Street Date June 21, 2016 / 26.97
Starring Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Edith Haagenrud-Sande, Fridtjov Såheim, Laila Goody, Arthur Berning, Herman Bernhoft.
Cinematography John Christian Rosenlund
Film Editor Christian Siebenherz
Original Music Magnus Beite
Written by John Kåre Raake, Harald Rosenløw-Eeg
Produced by Are Heidenstrom, Martin Sundland
Directed by Roar Uthaug
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Probably the most astounding natural disaster footage we’ve seen came from Northern Japan in 2011. Much of it is still up on the web. We’re accustomed to the sight of aftermath footage of earthquakes and volcanoes, hurricanes and tornadoes, but the omnipresence of cell phones is changing that. In Japan TV crews were on site to catch a real Tsunami as it happened, even watching the approaching wave-swells from the air as they calmly swept ashore. The astonishing, rather guilty spectacle looks like (forgive this) a Toho disaster film directed by God. As a wave washes over the flatland, we can see vehicles racing down a road, only to discover that their escape route ahead is already flooded. Another clip taken from a concrete building as fifty feet of water rushes through town, shows a man stepping onto the roof of a building next door, clearly dazed to see himself surrounded by so much rushing water. The camera pans away, and when it pans back not twenty seconds later the building that was just there is gone, totally gone. Even more personalized is a view from a hill as the waters hit a dense area of buildings, wiping them out. The water is rising very quickly, and two terraces down we see some people trying to help an old woman up the path. We can see that they’re going to be overtaken if they don’t hurry. They stop for some reason — the old woman needs to rest? — and then they’re gone. Years later, seeing that moment generates the same feeling of paralysis the witnesses on the site must have felt.
That leads us to the sadistic aim of the average American disaster film, the ‘event’ subgenre launched so long ago by Irwin Allen. Put a bunch of movie stars on the screen and let the audience guess who will die and by what means. Survival or doom are linked to moral, sentimental and spiritual values; greedy villains get theirs while heaven creates miracles to deliver the virtuous (or top-billed). Audiences loved the despicable The Towering Inferno, which sets up adulterous lovers for a horrible death because they deserve it. Is Jennifer Jones’s subplot running out of steam? There she goes, a fireball plummeting 103 stories. That’s the end of your comeback cameo, sister.
I try to review the biggest and most egregious disaster films for the same reason many viewers see them, to laugh. A big film like 2012 is very aware that it’s 2.5 hours of expensive idiocy. Is the subgenre dead? Not if it puts people in extreme jeopardy and makes us care about them. The old Earthquake is largely a bore, but the 1960 The Last Voyage still has the power to grip us. So does the 1975 Juggernaut, which I suppose is technically about terrorists, not a natural disaster. All you have to do is create characters that aren’t idiots, and make what they do make enough sense for the audience to care about them. Add a kill list that doesn’t cheat, and it’s an unbreakable formula. If audiences know that a whopping big catastrophe is coming, they’ll put up with anything. If they get emotionally invested, they’re in the filmmakers’ pocket. Noting was more gripping than when I was eight, at The Last Voyage. You could tell that the whole theater was on the edge of their seats — when they the trapped woman was freed just as the ship started to dip underwater, they really had us. A few years ago, J.A. Bayona’s excellent The Impossible with Naomi Watts showed the plight of people caught in the Indonesian tsunami of 2004. It’s a foreign production that ignores conventional disaster movie clichés.
The Norwegian film The Wave (Bølgen) presents the credible threat of a massive tsunami in a fjord, triggered by a large rockslide. We learn that in 1905 a big chunk of rock from the steep sides of a fjord fell, sending a huge wall of water several miles where it washed away a village on the shoreline. If you don’t remember what a fjord looks like, take a look at The Vikings again. Director Roar Uthaug’s movie is a straight story without undue hype and no political or religious messages; it just says, yes this could happen. The disaster formula hooks us at the start, and it works because we aren’t being fed a bunch of manipulative baloney. I guess you could say it’s ‘up close and personal,’ but not in the Hollywood mold. It has more dignity than the usual hyped BS story where the hero pushes his way through doomed slob extras, to do things like save his kid’s pet puppy.
The Wave is rated ‘R’ for language; the disaster images are vivid but not abusive. The story deals with a family with a connection to the fjord tsunami issue. Young father of two, Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner, The Revenant) is a geologist working a government study-monitoring site that has installed sensors in several mountains in danger of splitting. He’s taking his family to a large city to take a new job with an oil company. His wife Idun Karlsen (Ane Dahl Torp of Dead Snow is also leaving her job in the hotel in Geiranger, a couple of miles away from their home. They have a small daughter, Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) and a teenage son, Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) who likes to ride a skateboard. Already concerned about some troubling sensor data from the Akenes mountain, on the day Kristian is to take off for the new job, he goes back to his lab instead. Unable to convince his colleagues to call an alert, he stays one more night at home with Julia, while Idun and Sondre stay at her hotel. Akenes suddenly splits in two just as two of Kristian’s colleagues are resetting the monitors. Another geologist at the monitoring station hits the alarm button, which trips the klaxon alarms in Geiranger. The only problem is that the whole town has only ten minutes to get 80 meters above sea level… on one narrow road.
The Wave isn’t clogged by a lot of subplots that drag things out. The crisis doesn’t have to compete with marital problems or other family issues. I found it completely refreshing, with much of its charm coming from the unusual Norwegian setting. The actors playing the family are quite good. No outrageous plot twists pop up; it’s just a basic story of survival. Idun is introduced solving a plumbing problem by herself; when she’s trapped in the hotel she has to act like Indiana Jones, plus keep up her son’s courage even as people are being killed and their safe room fills with icy water. Kristian has to find a way to save his helpless daughter. It’s chilling when the road jams up with only 4.5 minutes remaining — Kristian shouts for people to abandon their cars and run for their lives. Survival is a simple ‘cold equation’: every person there has to do one thing — climb — or they’re goners for sure.
The digital effects are limited to a few minutes of film but are extremely well done. The disaster occurs in the pre-dawn hours, giving us an awesome slow-motion spectacle. Millions of tons of rock hit the deep fjord at once, sending up a colossal mass of water rushing in all directions. Ordinary floods are scary — I was in one in the Sacramento delta when I was six — but this would be terrifying. Some of the victims screw up by not taking the alert seriously, while others are paralyzed by the sight of the approaching wave. I’m no expert (on far more than just this, as Savant readers know) but the way the wave is pictured is very convincing. The slo-mo doesn’t hide the fact that the wave is moving at a high rate of speed, pushing a pressure wave before it that strips the roofs from a couple of buildings between the water and the hotel.
The Wave received a small American release and garnered good reviews, but its modest thrills couldn’t compete in an arena clogged with films that have ten times the action and bigger stars. What we see is honest and credible. Our heroes don’t demonstrate superhuman qualities. Idun survives the first blast of the wave only because she’s fast and makes a quick, correct decision. The film doesn’t pile false jeopardy climaxes one atop another. I’m a cynic when it comes to movies that put families in jeopardy for cheap thrills, but I approve this modest show — it earns its sentimental touches twice over.
Now remind me to go pack my spare water and flashlight batteries for when the big earthquake hits. I’m 272 feet above sea level here in Larchmont, so unless a meteor the size of Burbank hits just off shore, I don’t think a tsunami is going to touch me. On the other hand, if a really big quake takes us out, I may slide off into the ocean, like Atlantis. Whee!
Magnolia Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray of The Wave is a solid encoding of a handsome, carefully crafted production. We like it when a specific effect shot serves a specific narrative function, rather than just fill a space marked ‘yowzie wowzie big bucks effect goes here.’ The show looks especially good considering that the main action happens in the pre-dawn hour when there’s just enough light to see things clearly. The effects budget is used to create oh-my-gosh-I’m-in-trouble situations, not a series of huge killer master shots (although we get a couple of those too, see the top image above).
For audio buffs, a Norwegian language track is in Dolby Atmos. Magnus Beite’s music sets the tension and feeling of panic at just the right level.
The extras are short and sweet, more like teaser promos. We meet the director, some of the technical people and the star Kristoffer Joner, who tells us he had to do a lot of underwater work despite having an asthmatic condition. I hope the water was warm, at least. Three short effects pieces explain that some of the big-scale sets, such as the ruined town of Geiranger, were filmed in a giant studio in Romania. The film cameras and electronic equipment being used on the set have changed so much that I can only guess at what they’re all for. The effects expert on camera says that his company’s ‘water’ effects were enhanced by the availability of new exotic software. Are such things now that specialized? I’ve met an effects contact in France who seems to specialize in ‘particle animation.’ You, particle 30128 — a little more to the left, please.
Magnolia has put a LONG string of trailers up front, so reach for your ‘go to menu’ button if you haven’t got all night. I first became interested in The Wave because it’s from Norway, which has been making really good mystery miniseries in the last few years. America better watch out because practically everybody around the world seems capable of making more interesting films than we make – all we really have to offer any more is star power (and various monopolies on screen space). One major reason for The Wave’s appeal is that it isn’t malignantly stupid — it doesn’t feature a tsunami caused by the San Andreas fault, that inexplicably heads from the mid-Pacific toward the fault line in California.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Wave Blu-ray
Movie: Very Good
Sound: Excellent Dolby Atmos (Norwegian track) alternate English track Dolby True HD
Supplements: Making of and effects featurettes; director interview, trailer
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, Spanish
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 4, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson