Thursday, March 31, 2016

Disaster Day: The Wave (2015)

In 2016, I’ve devoted some real estate here on the blog to “Disaster Day,” my reviews of classic disaster films such as The Poseidon Adventure (192), The Towering Inferno (1974) and even Earthquake (1974).

My obsession with these movies runs deep, but for a good reason, I hope. Specifically, many of these genre films from the seventies seem like more than mere demolition derbies. Instead, they offer unique viewpoints on life, and how to survive in difficult times. I think, for example, of Gene Hackman's reverend in The Poseidon Adventure and his boot-strap brand of  "those who help themselves" Christianity.

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.

But 2015’s The Wave -- a Norwegian film from Roar Uthaug -- is a worthy heir to the disaster genre flicks I name-checked above. 

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 in The Wave go beyond the realm of the impressive to actually stunning, but -- importantly -- aren’t asked to carry the picture. 

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.

The Wave is a low-budget film and that’s a contrast to the disaster films made by Hollywood, but its focus on the essential qualities of good drama make for a big impact, and big achievements. With fewer characters for us to keep track of, the film’s danger feels more immediate. And with limited scenes of mayhem and destruction in the mix, the effects transmit as believable, instead of over-the-top. 

Once more, this approach reels in viewers, focusing and refocusing attention not on destruction, but on suspense instead.

Accordingly, The Wave is a thoroughly involving and terrifying film, and a welcome addition to a genre that, since the 1970s, has reveled in trickery and excess instead of good dramatic storytelling.

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.

But now, feeling like a stranger to his family, including his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and young daughter, Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande), Kristian has accepted a new job in the city, at a big oil company.

Immediately following his last day on the job in Geiranger, Kristian begins to detect signs that something is wrong inside the mountain. 

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.

Before long, Kristian's long-feared disaster strikes.

What do you do when disaster seems impending, and you’re the only person who can, literally, sound the alarm? 

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.

Arvid, Kristian’s superior, meanwhile, is the polar opposite. He is a man with apparently no imagination, and he denies, even to himself, the signs of the coming apocalypse. Like the town elders in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) who just want to keep the beaches open, Arvid wants to avoid panic, humiliation and false alarms at all costs.  

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. 

It isn’t an “if.”  It’s a “when.”

In The Wave, Arvid pays a price for his failure to heed evidence and facts. While investigating the mountain, he becomes the first to die, thus paying penance for his “keep the beaches open” economy-over-environment viewpoint. Similarly, his failure to act responsibly when it makes a difference, causes many people to die.  

And the tourist season is destroyed anyway.

Meanwhile, Kristian lives through his worst nightmare. In this equation, the scientist plays the role of the mythical Cassandra. He knows what is coming, but is ignored, and ultimately, helpless to stop destiny. 

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.

The feeling of terror and suspense in The Wave are palpable. Director Uthaug gets much mileage from the classic ticking clock conceit. The mountain collapses into the water near Geiranger, and the ten minute countdown till disaster commences. 

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.

Suddenly as he realizes, there is no time left. A missed call, which goes to voice mail, could be the difference between his family’s survival or destruction. Or a missing hotel resident could delay the departure of the tourist evacuation just long enough to cause total disaster.

The Wave isn’t just about “time,” either. The equation for survival also includes distance and, actually, height. 

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.

Another powerful technique that The Wave makes use of comes straight from the horror genre. 

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 they are sure it will collapse.

If that prediction of future terror doesn’t chill the blood, you’re watching the wrong genre, perhaps.

The Wave features many of the tropes one expects of the disaster films. There are panicky survivors who jeopardize everybody’s safety.  There are feats of courage. There are people trapped underwater.  There are families separated and fearing the worst.

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.

Suspenseful, emotionally-affecting, and beautifully-rendered, both in terms of cinematography and special effects, The Wave proves that disaster films still have a lot of life left in them when vetted by thoughtful filmmakers. 

More than that, the disaster film looks and sounds great with a Norwegian accent.

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