by Ken Bakely
There’s a twenty minute stretch in the middle of Roar Uthaug’s The Wave which is so uncharacteristically strong that it’s almost worth the price of admission. In it, the picturesque fjord-adjacent resort town of Geiranger, Norway is obliterated by a three hundred foot tsunami, caused by a catastrophic rockslide. There’s a perfunctory warning system for the denizens of the town and its many tourists. When geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) gives the go-ahead to his coworkers at a high-perched observatory to sound the relevant alarm, the sirens which go off all over Geiranger in the middle of the night alert everyone below that they have no more than ten minutes to get eighty meters above sea level. If you can exceed that altitude, you should be fine. If you’re right at the limit, you’ll be endangered, but most likely alive. If you’re far below it, well… it’s not like you weren’t warned.
This all takes place at the beginning of the 105 minute film’s second act. Uthaug ratchets up the tension in this sequence with stunning efficiency. There were shivers down my spine for the full duration of this segment of the movie. The droning air-raid siren becomes a rhythmic point of order, as each rise and fall symbolizes the loss of more precious time. The scene on the streets is anarchic. Everyone leaps in their cars and tries to rush up a nearby mountain. A traffic jam, an inevitable event in scenarios like these, forces people to make last-ditch attempts for survival on foot. The approaching wall of water, screaming into town as it relentlessly races across the water, becomes a threatening, fatalistic backdrop for those scrambling up the hill.
After the wave hits, thrashing the village with a violent, unrelenting onslaught, Uthaug isn’t afraid to dig into more gruesome detail than American blockbusters would with budgets twenty times this film’s. Survivors are forced to confront the devastation – every freestanding structure below eighty meters has been utterly obliterated. Gas lines have ruptured, reflecting fire on the polluted water, and there are bloated corpses at every turn. In these moments, The Wave is several cuts above the artificial intensity of a marquee production, attempting for a more piercing, humanist, and realistic outlook.
And then the rest of the movie happens.
I cannot convey how quickly the last half-hour of The Wave drops off from that pulse-pounding level and careens into a pool of the clichés seen in nearly all of the films it was previously holding the middle finger to. As the film refocuses itself away from the tsunami and back to the family at its core – Kristian, his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), their teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), and their younger daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) – it loses a considerable deal of momentum. The key conceit is that through a series of contrivances, the family has largely been separated. Julia is safe in the care of a family friend on dry land, but Idun is trapped with her son in an old bomb shelter at the hotel where she works. Water is quickly flooding the premises, and Kristian has to brave the flooded ruins of Geiranger to find them, all the while not knowing if he’ll find his wife and son or their remains.
By the time this element is shifted into high gear, the film is nearly over and Uthaug is stranded as a storyteller, unable to create a sense of personal investment. There’s a fair degree of trouble encountered when it comes to staying out of familiar territory, and not falling back on tropes. I’m reminded of a scene at the end in which we see yet another appearance of the totally medically accurate* procedure of administering CPR and chest compressions indefinitely until the person in question magically comes back to life. In a movie like San Andreas, a filmmaker can almost get away with the employment of this absurd rehash, because there is a sense of understanding there that the whole thing is played as part of a skin-deep popcorn flick.
Uthaug’s problem is that there is a clear intent on his part to make something more emotionally involving than the status quo of the disaster film. After all, only minutes before that first-aid cliché appeared, there was a sequence in which a supporting character, lost in a mental breakdown, nearly murders a child, and can only be stopped after another survivor drowns him. Uthaug plays events like those in matter-of-fact, direct shots, where nothing is obscured for the sake of the viewer’s personal sensibilities. It’s this continual conflict of interest, between attempts to obtain a darker, more complex approach to the screenplay and falling back on the Hollywood playbook, which ends up hurting The Wave. Ultimately, this struggle leaves a bad aftertaste in the final shot, in which a plot thread is neatly resolved over a panning shot of the wrecked community, exposing a vast area of death and loss which is, in the end, only explored when it can serve as a convenient jumping-off point for a predictable plot.