A film review by Craig J. Koban April 7, 2016


2016, R, 104 mins.


Kristoffer Joner as Kristian  /  Thomas Bo Larsen as Phillip  /  Ane Dahl Torp as Idun  /  Fridtjov Såheim as Arvid Øvrebø  /  Laila Goody as Margot Valldal  /  Jonas Hoff Oftebro as Sondre  /  Arthur Berning as Jacob Vikra  /  Edith Haagenrud-Sande as Julia  /  Eili Harboe as Vibeke  /  Mette Agnete Horn as Maria  /  Tyra Holmen as Teresa  /  Herman Bernhoft as Georg

Directed by Roar Uthaug  /  Written by John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg

I’ve become so jaded and tired of the natural disaster genre that I frankly have to pinch and remind myself that this is one that’s somehow worthy of me caring about it.  

At their best, these films are sometimes gloriously engineered spectacles that inspire fear and wonder in the mayhem presented, but at their worst they're intellectually vacant eye candy motivated by cheap, sensationalistic titillation that borders on – and then crosses it – shameful disaster porn.  Thankfully, along has come the mostly splendid Norwegian thriller THE WAVE to wake me up out of self-induced apathy.  Even though this film is still guilty of adhering to many of the stale and overused troupes of its genre, it nevertheless scores huge creative points for its atypical and refreshing handling of its inherent material.   

Despite its maddeningly bland title, THE WAVE is steeped in some frightening geological realities that threaten Norway on a continual basis.  The country is like a hellish black hole for massive rock slides that can induce even more dangerous tsunamis.  As the swift introductory segment of the film illustrates, rock slides have led to multiple Norwegian deaths in the past, one such incident on April 7, 1934 killed 40 people in one town, whereas another similar incident in 1905 cost the lives of 60 people.  THE WAVE ostensibly takes place in a particularly picturesque Norwegian town that happens to be right smack dab in the epicenter of a mountain that potentially could rupture at any time, cause a massive mud slide and tsunami, and obliterate just about anything in their paths.  It’s that sense of eminent and plausible threat here that makes the stakes in THE WAVE feel all the more terrifyingly palpable, not to mention that both the people in front of and behind the camera look upon such a possibility with the severely cautious eyes that it deserves.  



The film opens in one Norwegian village, home to Kristian (Kristopher Joner), a headstrong and cunning geologist that's working his final few days on the job monitoring a nearby mountain range for any abnormal activity.  His family – made up of his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), and kids Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) – are making their final preparations for a rather stressful move…stressful because some have been largely resistant to leaving their old and comfortable life behind.  Of course, just as the family is about to make their final departure out of town, Kristian notices some very peculiar readings regarding the mountain’s terrain and he relays them to his bosses and colleagues, which they mostly shrug off.  Ringing alarm bells – and prematurely so – would definitely elicit panic in all of the recently arrived tourists, and clearly none of these people have ever seen JAWS before, seeing as that film also featured community leaders that were proven dead wrong at the worst possible time. 

Predictably, there’s something dangerous afoot deep within the mountain, but the inability and unwillingness of Kristian’s colleagues to do anything about it causes even more deeply rooted concerns for him.  Unfortunately for all, it’s all too late when a devastating rockslide occurs and unleashes a shockingly immense tidal wave, endangering the unsuspecting lives of the villagers and tourists.  Worse yet is the fact that everyone essentially has ten minutes to flee the village and escape up to higher ground, leaving a community already gripped with fear now engaged in life or death levels of delirious turmoil.  Kristian and his daughter survive and become hopelessly separated from the rest of his family (mother and son find themselves trapped in the basement level of the nearby hotel that Idun works at).  With time running out and tsunami waters threatening to drown his wife and son, Kristian is forced to go on the offensive rather quickly to save them while staying alive in the process. 

One thing that I chiefly admired about director Roar Uthaug’s overall approach here is that he doesn’t fall victim to lacing his film with a constant barrage of mindless visual effects and numbing action.  Instead, he takes a rather slow burn and patient approach to the material and invests viewers within Kristian’s tight, yet emotionally fractured family unit.  Ample time is spent developing these characters as relatable and credible human beings first and foremost, which consequently means that when the horrendous disaster does strike we actually care about whether or not any of them will make it out alive.  So many countless disaster films populate their respective stories with relentlessly formulaic, cardboard cutout personas that are readily definable based on overarching character “types.”  There’s refreshingly none of that here in THE WAVE: we bare witness to this specific family unit that’s presented with authentically grounded strokes, which makes their death-defying struggles later all the more enthralling. 

It’s also so decidedly rare to see a disaster film that’s not utterly caught up in the visual allure of presenting the disaster itself.  THE WAVE takes its time developing its story particulars and never seems to dwell on the ostentatious CGI overkill that pollutes this genre.  It takes nearly 45 minutes or so for the titular natural disaster to strike, and most of the build up involves people debating the relative likelihood of such a calamitous event while deciphering data on computer monitors.  Yes, Uthaug does utilize some exceptionally well rendered visual effects to envision the film’s central action sequence…but he doesn’t pummel us with scene after scene of pixel-heavy artifice that hoards screen time away from the characters wrapped up in it all.  Large-scale disaster films, like last year’s mostly forgettable SAN ANDREAS, seemed enamored with wowing audiences on a continually basis with endless special effects-laden sequences, favoring quantity over quality.  THE WAVE takes the far more refreshing and novel approach of delivering the tsunami’s awesome wraith (mostly in real time…ten minutes) and then deals with the nightmarish aftermath of it all.  This leaves the film feeling more dramatically raw and distressingly real.  The sheer weight of the rockslide and tsunami’s power has a shocking and immediate enormity and we feel it here.  Lingering on polished and pretty looking visual effects would have robbed this film of its verisimilitude. 

As stated, though, THE WAVE still employs some of the genre’s more hackneyed conventions, like the family patriarch that’s more entombed within is work than he is with his own family.  Moreover, the petty financial squabbling of town officials over the necessity to warn its own civilians of an impending disaster – despite the obvious warning signs delivered by the film’s hero - has a been there/done that feel in oh-so-many other disaster thrillers, not to mention how the once tightly knit family unit at the heart of the story re-connects and re-discovers their love for one another largely through shared survival in the wake of the disaster.  Even the intense sense of realism that THE WAVE generates doesn’t really quite match the dramatic gut punch that was 2012’s THE IMPOSSIBLE, one of the better disaster films of the last several years.  Still, THE WAVE is convincingly engineered and genuinely scary at times and is a genre effort that rarely feels like it lazily adhering to frustratingly tired Hollywood blockbuster tendencies and formulas.  

Ultimately, this is a disaster film that made me care, and that’s a feat that should be commended in an overstuffed market for these types of frequently overproduced films

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