Subtlety isn't easy to accomplish when you dealing with the kind of situations typically depicted in disaster movies: crumbling buildings, fleeing crowds, trapped people with moments before their looming death. Hollywood rarely makes the effort for that kind of restraint in the genre, instead taking the threats of doomsday prophecies or looming earthquakes and barreling forward with as much tongue-in-cheek demolition as possible, fitting in just enough personal relationships to deepen the fatal stakes. Roar Uthaug's The Wave positions itself somewhere between the bombast of normal disaster fare and credible self-control in the drama surrounding a disastrous event, tasked with depicting the real-life concern of a mountainous rockslide creating a tsunami that'd submerge a lakefront tourist town. Keeping things completely understated in a depiction of this event wasn't really a possibility, nor would that be desirable, but this Norwegian production never lets the thrilling excess drown out its genuine aspects.
The Wave depicts the waterfront town of Geiranger, a smallish, verdant area surrounded by towering mountains, whose beauty makes it a regular site for travelers. It's a locale with a bleak past and an ominous future, however: the mountains are historically unstable, resulting in rock debris that toppled down into its fjord and created waves that rushed into the town, most recently in the '30s. Geologists, such as Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), are certain that the systemic erosion of a particular mountain in the area will eventually cause another of these events to happen, thus unleashing a tsunami onto the town potentially populated with tourists. Kristian's scientific concerns weren't enough to keep him from taking a job in the city, away from this natural ticking time-bomb, which would uproot his wife, hotel front-desk clerk Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), and their two children. The days leading up to their departure are disrupted by indications of seismic activity, suggesting that the long-feared event might be on the way.
Both The Wave and Brad Peyton's San Andreas were released within about three months of one another, so drawing any similarities between the two -- over the family drama, the real-world geological premise, or the mounting scientific tension -- wouldn't amount to much in the "copycat" department. Instead, their resemblances are merely a reflection of the broad, mechanical formula at work in disaster movies, a point of interest considering how systematically Roar Uthaug develops far more nuanced versions of essentially the same ideas found in the Californian earthquake flick. Similarly also to The Impossible, The Wave lays a more sincere emotional groundwork about an everyday lead character, not a muscled hero but a regular ole scientist, and his family moving away from such a unique, burdened location. Kristoffer Joner and Ane Dahl Torp lead the way with their earthy chemistry as forty-something spouses, who butt heads over parenting choices that interweave with the dangers of the impending catastrophe. Director Uthaug approaches the fjord's atmosphere like a drama at first instead of an action-movie setup, and that impact can be felt throughout.
Obviously, there's little being spoiled in revealing that, yes, things do eventually go south in the Norwegian mountains, heralding the arrival of the titular wave once the rocks come tumbling down. It's a testament to Roar Uthaug's craftsmanship that The Wave generates relentless, on-edge rushes even knowing what's to come, in the midst of a fluid transition from family dramatics to unbearable pressure. Troubled Water's Harald Rosenlow-Eeg and Ragnarok's John Kare Raake have penned a script that convincingly flings normal people into dangerous situations and separates families from one another, all while adhering to the scientific logistics behind how the eroding mountain might actually be handled as a debatable concern worth warning the city about. Small touches, like the fraying of wires and the malfunction of sensors, become surprisingly poignant catalysts for tension, while observing whether these scientists decide whether the time's right to sound the alarm over the incoming tsunami -- akin to confirming the arrival of a doomsday prophecy -- both exhilarates and provokes a bit of thought.
Once the tsunami starts rushing toward Geiranger, The Wave musters every ounce of vigor it can from its modest budget, defying budgetary limits as it depicts the overbearing rush of water coming from the fjord. Stunning photography and cleverly-used visual effects capture both the nocturnal chaos in front of the wave and volatile writhing with everything that's submerged, evoking harrowing beauty within the dilemmas created by the event. Since this isn't a constant disaster -- there's only one tsunami -- and the town maintains some level of preparation for its coming, the vast majority of the thrills emerge in both the flight from The Wave itself and coping with the lethal circumstances after, underscored by the anguished performances from the entire cast. The Wave succeeds by embracing the smaller scale of the location and the relative brevity of the tsunami's physical impact, and while Roar Uthaug doesn't deviate from the disaster-movie formula up until its final breath, he clearly understands how to telegraph a strong impact while keeping the dramatic authenticity from suffocating under Hollywood-style bombast.
Video, Audio, and Special Features:
Magnolia Home Entertainment have send over a theatrical screening disc for The Wave, which was watermarked with text, shifts to black-and-white footage throughout, and is limited to a 2-channel stereo audio treatment. We'll update this DVD review if/when a retail copy comes in.