The Wave (Bølgen)

Norway (2015) Dir. Roar Uthaug

Disaster movies have long been assumed the exclusive property of Hollywood, a monopoly Asia wasn’t going to allow as recent hits such as The Tower, The Sinking of Japan and Out Of Inferno have demonstrated. Europe has been a bit slower off the mark, so it is to Norway we offer our kudos for this impressive entry The Wave.

As we learn from the genuine newsreel footage at the start, Norway has around 300 unstable mountains that, as nature takes it course, could easily create a landslide and destroy the poor villages beneath them. One such location is the tourist hamlet of Geiranger, where geologist Kristian Eikfjord (Kristoffer Joner) is about to up sticks with his family for a job in the oil trade in the city.

On Kristian’s last day at work he gets nervous about negative readings from the surveillance equipment of the nearby mountains but his boss Arvid (Fridtjov Såheim) and his colleagues tells him not to worry. Kristian continues to worry about the readings and jeopardising his family’s getaway, he explores the mountain, discovering the cables holding the crevasse together have worn away. The next morning, Kristian’s worst fears come true.

This may not be Europe’s first disaster movie – Sweden’s Force Majeure explores the emotional and psychological loss after an avalanche – but The Wave is one that follows the popular formula, albeit with a slightly smaller budget. But don’t take this as sign of inferiority – the effects are just as outstanding and feel more natural as a result.

And it is this sense of genuine foreboding and unnerving real life prescience that gives this film an edge over others within the genre: having the disaster being an unavoidable natural occurrence and not some ludicrously over-conceived man made error caused by lack of judgement or ignorance, or worse still aliens.

Working from a script by John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg, the wonderfully named Roar Uthaug (who is helming the new Tomb Raider reboot) presumably didn’t impress the Norwegian tourist board with this ominous reminder that their country is on daily disaster alert, although the stunning photography of the mountains and the shimmering rivers are very inviting.

But the true horror is in the fact this is rooted in reality and Uthaug plays up to that in every aspect of the film, in particular the casting and characterisations. With all due respect, none of the actors – who did all their own stunts – are the impossibly beautiful types, nor do they possess any airs and graces or anything special or distinctive about them, making them easier to root for.

Kristian’s wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) works at the local hotel, their teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) is the quiet, type while young daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) is a little sweetie pie, who insists on saying goodbye to the house before they leave. This separates the family when the landslide hits – Sondre stays on at the hotel with mum – supplying us with a reason for the narrative to do more than just cover the aftermath of the event.

The actual landslide lasts around two minutes in total and doesn’t arrive until almost an hour into the film, but it is superbly executed, a touch of CGI and some practical physicalities for the cast to endure. Two scenes stand out: one sees Kristian and neighbour Anna (Silje Breivik) trapped in a car that is hit from behind by the tidal wave; the second is when the wave hits the hotel, shown from a distance to create a terrifying sense of scale as people run inside.

Of course being inside the hotel doesn’t ensure total safety, and in a superbly crafted piece of tension straight out of a horror film, Idun and two Danish tourists (Thomas Bo Larsen and the ironically named Mette Horn) are being chased by a cascade of water flooding the hotel corridors. Meanwhile Sondre is skateboarding in the hotel basement with his headphones oblivious to the chaos occurring outside.

Whether he likes it or not, Uthaug is beholden to the conventions of the disaster movie genre which he honours but gleefully subverts first, just to keep us on our toes. These delicious little curveballs are presented without fuss and free from the melodramatic overtones usually reserved for scenes of heart stopping suspense.

Only one scene feels like a concession to the multiplex audience. In it, Kristian is en route to the ferry with his kids, but decides to detour to his old place of work to warn his colleagues of his theory. He leaves his offspring in the car and say he’ll be right back – only to find the time to take a helicopter ride to the mountain base to check the cables! And he was surprised to find they have given up waiting and went to find mum!

The presentation is slick and worthy of the (comparatively) big budget it was afforded yet the now renowned Scandinavian grittiness and dour atmosphere is very much present to offset any hint of this being another vapid popcorn blockbuster. The camerawork is unobtrusive and the energy comes from the actors and not the forced quick cut edit used in Hollywood.

Apart from his uncanny ability to hold his breath underwater for a prolonged period of time, Kristoffer Joner makes Kristian a suitable everyman whose professional knowledge is actually irrelevant when it comes to surviving this tumultuous event. It is actually Ane Dahl Torp as Idun who provides most of the heroics but without an exaggerated superhuman efforts, while Denmark’s Thomas Bo Larsen is sadly wasted in his small role.

Hollywood may no longer have the monopoly on disaster movies if The Wave is any indication, the benefit being the alternate perspective European filmmakers bring to a genre open to spectacle overkill. If you want the same excesses but with heart, soul and frightening plausibility and inevitability, this is the film to watch.

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