By contrast, many modern disaster films, such as San Andreas (2015) feel much more concerned with special effects than with people, let alone philosophical musings.
Intriguingly, it’s a highly personal film. Most genre flicks give audiences faded celebrities -- Shelley Winters, Fred Astaire and George Kennedy -- by the (capsized) boatload but The Wave reinvigorates the formula, in part, by cutting out the fat in the cast.
Our main characters are in one family, for example.
It's true, that we meet one or two other victims (a neighbor and a couple visiting a tourist hotel), but the primary focus here is on the family, and how its members relate to one another, and cope with a day nobody believed would ever come.
The special effects scenes are beautiful and effective, yes, but limited, and that too seems like a re-write of modern genre rules, which seem to demand constant spectacle and constant one-up-man-ship. The tsunami featured in The Wave decimates a seaside town, but doesn’t bring down skyscrapers, planes in flight, or whole continents. In essence, then, The Wave is rooted in reality, not fantasy.
Once more, this approach reels in viewers, focusing and refocusing attention not on destruction, but on suspense instead.
In beautiful Geiranger -- a tourist village in Western Norway -- a geologist named Kristian (Kristoffer Jonner) has devoted his professional life to monitoring a local mountain range for signs of collapse, or a rock slide.
Such an event has happened before, decades in the past, and one occurring now would generate a huge tsunami. The town’s unsuspecting denizens and tourists would have only ten minutes to reach high ground (87 feet above sea level…) once a collapse begins.
His boss, Arvin (Fridtjov Saheim) refuses to sound the alarm and evacuate the village, for fear of destroying, economically, the tourist season in Geiranger. While Kristian makes his case for warning the town, he separates from his family, as Idun goes to her job at the hotel, and Sondre skateboards in the hotel basement.
That’s one big question raised in The Wave. Kristian lives in fear and anxiety because he knows that a rock slide is a matter of “when,” not “if.”
Accordingly, he has become something less-than an ideal father and husband. He is galvanized with fear -- every day -- by the possibility of disaster. Others -- in and out of his family -- view Kristian as “Chicken Little,” one might conclude.
For him, the sky is always about to fall.
The only problem? It could fall, at any time. With minimal warning.
I suppose if one is willing to consider this conflict or dynamic on a wider scale, there's a real life corollary worth considering.
Arvid ignores impending disaster -- and the considered evidence of a scientist (Kristian) -- in favor of economic and personal concerns.
And yes, this exact dynamic is happening right now, and every day, regarding climate change. The Wave, without being preachy in the slightest, makes the case that our failure to responsibly care-take the environment will eventually bite us in the ass.
And the tourist season is destroyed anyway.
Still, Kristian’s arc in The Wave is significant and affecting. After he faces the fear of what is happening (not what might happen), he becomes the man his family needs him to be.
When it starts, Kristian is separated from his wife and son. He sets his watch for ten minutes, and knows just how long he has to get his daughter to safety, and find Idun and Sondre.
One of the film’s most harrowing sequences finds Kristian -- with young Julia in tow -- realizing that he can’t make it to the desired high ground by car in the remaining time left, due to traffic.
Accordingly, he exits the car with his daughter, picks her up, and starts running. In the background behind Kristian and Julia, one can see the wave looming, growing ever closer. Then, a neighbor is injured, and Kristian must send Julia ahead so he can take care of the wounded friend, and get her to safety too.
Many times, horror movies begin with title cards suggesting that what we are about to see is based on a true story.
The Wave opens with archival footage of earlier tsunami incidents in Norway. The movie informs us of a disaster in 1905 (with 60 people killed) and again in April, 1934, when a tsunami killed 40.
The inference is obvious: The Wave is not some far-fetched fantasy. It is not showing audiences just something that could happen. Rather, it tells a story about history -- predictable history -- repeating itself. The film’s end card resurrects this call to reality. We are told the mountain near Geiranger still stands…and scientists aren’t sure when it will collapse.
But instead of simply repeating such chestnuts in a hackneyed way The Wave floats above the predictable.
Consider the scene in which Idun, a tourist, and Sondre are trapped in a bunker rapidly filling with water. The tourist panics and begins to mindlessly drown Sondre. How Idun reacts to his behavior is surprising, smart, and brutally efficient. There’s no debate, no second-guessing...she just acts. And I like to think I’d have the presence of mind to react as quickly given the same circumstances.
More than that, the disaster film looks and sounds great with a Norwegian accent.