There’s an interesting signal in one of the opening scenes of “The Wave,” the very good Norwegian tsunami disaster movie and Norway’s official foreign language Oscar entry this year. Geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) returns home from a job interview and finds his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) underneath the sink, doing some home plumbing. Her comprehension of water pressure will serve her later, but, more importantly, it shows Idun to be resourceful and self-reliant, and the marriage between Kristian and Idun to be refreshingly egalitarian, devoid of traditional gender stereotypes. It’s crucial that we know this early, because it comes into play with much higher stakes later.
“The Wave,” directed by Roar Uthaug, is Norway’s first ever disaster movie, and Uthaug has clearly taken some cues from American disaster movie conventions. Our hero is Kristian, the savant geologist, who seems to have a sixth sense for shifting mountain plates. It’s his last day working on the early warning avalanche team in the small town of Geiranger, before he sets off for the city with his family to pursue a career in the oil industry. With a teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and adorable daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande), they’re the picture-perfect family.
But the persistent score doesn’t let up from moment one, and the audience knows that Kristian’s premonitions of rockslides triggering a massive wave of destruction across the peaceful and verdant fjord is inevitable. While the majority of the film takes place during the creeping dread and build up to the tsunami, and then the wreckage and aftermath, the execution of the tsunami itself, starting from the first rumblings, through the 10-minute warning, to when it crashes into the steep mountain road lined with abandoned cars is awe-inspiring. But director Uthaug demonstrates a smart restraint in rendering the impact, and the violence is never gratuitous or overplayed.
Joner has a sort of hang-dog John Hawkes quality, and as the patriarch, he is the emotional center as much as the life-saver. Husband and wife are each separated with a kid when the wave hits, and they get to share hero duties. Idun gets more of the physical action-based feats of courage, though the story emphasizes the power in teamwork. There’s also a willingness to morally complicate their survival that’s refreshing in a genre that’s usually very black and white on right and wrong.
What director Uthaug pitches perfectly right are the stakes. So many disaster movies are about the entire world ending, widening the scope too far to fully comprehend. In “The Wave,” the whole world is the tiny seaside village of Geiranger, but the emotional connections are effectively established and the stakes of this tiny world ending feel both dire and realistic.
Realism seems to be priority for Uthaug, and the film ends with a warning about the possibilities for an event of this type in the region sometime soon. While the hearty, bucolic charms of Geiranger beckon, the fear of a tsunami of this magnitude is enough to scare one away – perhaps because “The Wave” makes it look very, very real, and very terrifying.
Cast: Kristian Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Edith Haagenrud-Sande
Director: Roar Uthaug
Length: 104 minutes
Rating: R (some language and disaster images)