As “The Wave” opens, the camera soars with an SUV gliding through the majestic valleys of western Norway, alongside the Geiranger Fjord, a swath of scenery superseding all others. It would be enough to make you book a ticket to the Sunnmøre on Expedia if you had not seen the film’s opening archival footage in which it cautions that any moment an avalanche on the nearby mountain of Åkerneset could yield a destructive tsunami, an extra scary proposition given its setting. The S.S. Poseidon, after all, was just a rust bucket; Dante’s Peak was, well, obviously; the Glass Tower was a testament to mankind’s hubris – plus, O.J. Simpson worked security. But the Geiranger Fjord is merely lying wait in all its natural splendor to unleash hell, and it is, as the film cautions, just a matter of time.
But then, it is a film, and so the time must be now, conveniently coinciding with the Tsunami Warning Center’s principal geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) decision to up and leave quaint Geiranger for the bigger city and a better job (translation: more money). In his preparations for departure, however, he cannot help but note some groundwater irregularities, all of which go unheeded, as they must, his colleagues at the Warning Center assuming he is just searching for some excuse not to uproot his family. Because our intrepid geologist must have a family, of course, in this case a cute-as-a-button daughter, Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande), a semi-angsty teenage son, Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and a wife, Idun, introduced taking care of kitchen plumbing repair to demonstrate
that she though in one of the film’s wiser moves that familial dynamic does not turn on estrangement. Rather they are presented from the get-go as loving and in this together. That might not bow at the altar of screenwriting gurus’ haranguing of traditional Dramatic Conflict, but in a genre where estrangement is too often the go to, it feels refreshing.
As refreshing is impeccably named director Roar Uthaugh’s consideration of the film’s smallest moments. While the titular natural disaster that eventually comes plunging through the fjord is rip-roaring enough, what’s even better is lead-up to this mid-movie climax in which the town’s residents have only ten minutes to flee in the face of impending doom, automatically ratcheting up the tension of every moment and every decision. And Uthaug renders each moment and decision with minimal fuss, such as when fleeing traffic snarls and Kristian has to improvise to get he and Julia to higher ground. Uthaug merely proffers a shot of Kristian’s wristwatch counting down and then cutting to the father’s desperate yet determined I-Gotta-Figure-This-Out eyes, a brilliant reinforcement of how a couple basic edits can wield so much emotional power. The attention paid to these few seconds is emblematic of the attention Uthaug pays to all the movie’s moments of intimacy, from Kristian’s assistance of an injured woman in the moments before the wave hits, to an earlier non-action sequence when Sondre and a young girl make eyes in a hotel hallway (which is unfortunately forgotten about afterwards), crisply edited to make a moment influenced by so many listless other ones sing.
Alas, Uthaugh doubles down on the drama, separating the family, and making it so that wife and son remain stranded in town through a series of perhaps too-convenient events when the water pours in, leaving them trapped. You’d think, after that plumbing repair intro, that Idun would have the know-how to get them out herself, but instead “The Wave” metamorphoses into “The Impossible” by way of “The Poseidon Adventure” as Kristian must play the holding-his-breath hero. It’s conveyed professionally but with nominal pizazz, just another underwater rescue in a natural disaster movie, a Scandinavian cover version of an Irwin Allen 1970’s box office hit, and so what should be a rousing climax just sort of wilts.
And that’s a shame, because there is actually something wonderful in his going back to save them. Because this is one disaster movie family that is not, God bless it, built on the creaky foundation of estrangement. They may be nervous, as the movie opens, about leaving the only home they have known behind, but they are nevertheless affectionate and in this together, meaning that Kristian is not rescuing them to ascend a dramatic narrative mountain and prove his worth, but simply rescuing them on account of love. On that score, maybe America needn’t only look to Scandinavia for health care concepts, but for disaster movie characterization too.