Review: The Wave

We have had surges of slashers, floods of mythology movies and torrents of indie horrors. Now the scene is set for The wave, but will it drown in competition with Hollywood?

bølgenposterTouted as being the first disaster movie to come out of Scandinavia, Roar Uthaug’s The wave splashed its way through Norwegian cinemas with great success from day one. That’s not a surprise, as so many potentially great things come together in the event movie of the year. Experienced geologist Kristian Eikfjord (Kristoffer Joner) has accepted a job offer out of town. He is getting ready to move from the fjord town Geiranger with his family, when he and his colleagues measure small geological changes in the underground. Kristian gets worried and his worst nightmare is about to come true, when the alarm goes off and the disaster is inevitable. With less than 10 minutes to react, it becomes a race against time in order to save as many as possible, including his own family.

Unless you count 2011’s People in the sun, a character comedy drama set in an end-of-the-world situation or 2010’s flop Pax, which involves a plane crash, or 1990’s Havet stiger, which perhaps was more a postapocalyptic drama, The wave is indeed the first Scandinavian disaster movie. At least the first one that follows the genre formula by the book. Nitpicking scientist who sees things others don’t, check. Said scientist has special people to save or protect, check. Race against time, check. Spectacular effects and famous actors, check. As a genre entry, the movie offers very few new aspects, but this by-the-book genre adherence is something we have seen before in the Nordic film scene. It’s not that the clichés are not known to the creatives behind the film; it’s about crafting a movie that can be seen as a relative of its predecessors, as well as being traditional enough to be sold to foreign distributors. In this case, the clichés are presented tongue-in-cheek and can be seen as shortcuts to getting under the skin of the fans. Upon closer inspection you may even realize that some genre trademarks are twisted around to not remain carbon copies of bigger movies, such as the scene(s) where Kristian presents the upcoming danger. Will his team listen to him? In the most classic disaster movies, they never listen to the anxious scientist. Aside from that, there are several other things that come together nicely and place the movie in its own little corner. The story is based on real science; even though hotel fires, plane crashes or tornadoes are real too, few disaster movies copy named historical events that are also specific future events. The Norwegian scenery; the film is shot in one of the most beautiful areas of Norway, where tourists by the thousands enjoy the views every day. The fjords are part of our national heritage and seeing them as something dangerous rather than beautiful is a powerful image. Third, the actors; Kristoffer Joner and Ane Dahl Torp are cool, able and popular actors. Kristoffer is pretty much a regular guy, a bit scruffy and distracted, but is loved by his family. Ane is like Charlize Theron, beyond beautiful but can still kick ass. In one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, she does things a Norwegian heroine has never done before (another twist that makes the movie less cliché ridden than what can be seen at first glance). And last but not least, the movie’s overall scrope; director Uthaug is a genre and action expert, the budget is big and the homegrown visual effects are comparable to any 150 million dollar Hollywood spectacle. Add a rarely seen media hype to this mix, and nothing can go wrong.

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Well, there are a few glaring mistakes, but on the whole, The wave is ample thrilling action entertainment worthy of many popcorn buckets. The story is told with efficiency and no fuzz, with intensity that is nicely increased as the story unfolds. The main characters are well fleshed out. The mix of practical effects, VFX and elaborate sets work better than expected. The movie does not feel end-of-the-world big (due to the local and rural nature of the tsunami), and no major cities are flooded, but the dangers are almost tangible to the viewers, and there are some surprises along the way too.

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If you can forgive the film’s adherence to genre rules, there are three areas of poor judgement that sticks out. In two important parts of the story, Kristian the geologist makes decisions that would not fly in real life. There is no way whatsoever that even a desperate man would attempt what Kristian does, twice, in an effort to find his family. The survival instinct would kick in and prevent such foolish missions. Granted, they do add to the excitement and the movie would not have moved forward had these parts been treated more realistically, but there are a number of workarounds that could have given the same results. And then there are the lines. Or rather, some lines and dialogue. The era of wooden reading-from-the-phonebook acting is over in Norwegian films, but in its place we have dialogue that sounds as if it’s translated directly from an American script. “Let’s do this” and “I will not accept” are translated to Norwegian lines by a 10 year old with Google Translate, it seems. There are not hundreds of these, but they do feel conspicuously artificial. Finally, many of the supporting characters are not that well fleshed out. We don’t need them to have full background stories, but some of them seem to have no life outside their bunkers. A brief mention, a brief doubt, a quick glance in the wallet to remind of the kids would be enough. It seems that in the isolation of the main family as the only three dimensional characters, the others are just vehicles to propel the protagonists deeper and deeper into immersive moist. To the movie’s defence one can always argue that it’s a dumb popcorn movie where action speaks louder than words, emotions and body language put together. The wave is not an Ibsen drama – the only thing that matters is to run fast enough to escape the wave, and if that doesn’t work, search the ruins fast enough to save people. Subtle nuances does not always mix well with raw, brutal, simple survival. The movie’s lack of depth reflects that, and it also takes advantage of being less epic than many other disaster movies. The wave is more personal, more grounded, more 3rd person shooter game, except we see the person “shooting”. This allows a closer connection to the characters, which is ultimately what makes this movie work.

While The wave steals from its many relatives in the genre, and offers few new thrills, it may be too realistic for Norwegians and exotic enough for foreigners to be brushed off as just another catastrophe.

Directed by Roar Uthaug.

Norway, 2015.

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