Hollywood churns out one disaster movie after the next and while many are entertaining enough, few prove to be more than quick thrills and box office cash grabs. However, Norway just gave the genre its first shot and director Roar Uthaug absolutely obliterates the big budget studio competition.
The Wave is set in Geiranger, a small tourist town just below Åkerneset, an unstable mountain that is truly expected to collapse one day and destroy the village with an enormous tidal wave. The story focuses on Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), a geologist who’s very intense about his work at the early warning center, but decides to accept a more distinguished job at an oil company to make a better life for his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) and their two children, Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande), in the city. However, before they can make the big move, it happens – there’s a landslide and Kristian, his family and everyone else in Geiranger has just ten minutes to make their way to higher ground before the wave washes in.
The Wave has all the plot points we’ve come to expect from disaster movies. Kristian’s a loving father and husband who has a habit of putting work first. He’s the first to detect something isn’t right but his boss, Arvid (Fridtjov Såheim), thinks he’s overreacting and refuses to sound the alarm. Then, when the wave hits, Kristian and Julia are separated from Idun and Sondre, and it’s up to Kristian to bring his family back together. It may sound like more of the same, but thanks to the outstanding performances, stunning cinematography and spot-on pacing, The Wave maximizes the genre tropes and also exhibits a unique, highly appealing flavor of its own.
Minus the threat of the mountain collapsing, the first act of The Wave sells Geiranger as a wonderful place to live and an optimal tourist location. The landscape is absolutely breathtaking and everyone’s in good spirits. Cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund shows off one postcard-worthy visual after the next and Magnus Beite’s majestic score enhances the appeal, but he also incorporates just enough darker tones to tease what’s coming, pairing well with the narrative build.
Joner and Torp make for a fantastic lead couple. Idun is far more calm and practical than her husband who’s constantly distracted by rumblings up in the mountain. Their connection is so natural and palpable that you’re wholly invested within a moment of meeting them. Julia’s your typical cute kid/daddy’s girl, but scribes John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg beef up the role of Sondre with a little teen angst regarding the move. He dons headphones and sulks quite a bit, but he’s also always looking out for his sister and has an endearing, playful relationship with his mother, making him less predictable than one might expect.
The Wave is also packed with memorable supporting characters, particularly Kristian’s (former) colleagues at the early warning center, Kristian and Idun’s neighbors, and one of Idun’s colleagues. Some get more screen-time than others, but they’re all incorporated in ways that make them memorable and enhance the scope of the film when things take a turn for the worse. The Wave is all about Kristian, Idun and their kids, but Uthaug uses these additional characters and particular plot points to subtly paint a picture of the grand scale effects of the event.
As far as the visuals go, The Wave is a major technical achievement that will hopefully make Hollywood reconsider the tendency to go bigger and bigger to the point of excess. The wave is big and scary, and leads to tons of destruction, but there’s absolutely no need to see buildings collapse, cargo ships tumble in or even wide shots of the disaster for that matter. This is Kristian and Idun’s story, and Uthaug sticks to it. For the most part, we only see the wave strike from where they’re standing and that winds up making it even more terrifying than if Uthaug opted to step back and run through a montage of terrible things happening to random people.
Plus, Kristian and Idun’s experiences are still packed with gripping set pieces. Every single minute of their story will truly have you on the edge of your seat, but the standout moments are definitely when the wave first hits. What happens to Idun likely involved a good deal of CG (and all of it looks fantastic), but Kristian’s situation earns most of its intensity from editing and successful storytelling.
The Wave is everything you’d want in a disaster movie and then some. You’ve got a very likable group of main characters to root for, a mind-blowing plausible catastrophe, tons of destruction and an especially compelling fight for survival. Uthaug takes all the inherent appeal of this type of film and acknowledges the entertainment value of it, but then takes it a major step further by infusing it with a unique, Norwegian flavor and taking a grounded, character-driven approach to it. It’s hard to imagine the film transcending the genre tropes and walking off with that Foreign Language Oscar, but it’s still stellar work that will hopefully teach Hollywood a thing or two about churning quality disaster movies.
Click here for all of our TIFF 2015 coverage thus far or peruse links to our reviews below:
- 45 Years
- Beasts of No Nation
- Being Charlie
- Black Mass
- The Danish Girl
- Eye in the Sky
- Green Room
- I Smile Back
- The Iron Giant: Signature Edition
- Kill Your Friends
- The Lobster
- Maggie’s Plan
- The Martian
- Men & Chicken
- The Program
- Where to Invade Next