Disaster movies are quite possibly the most formulaic genre put to film, and there’s a reason for that. People go to these films to see special effects spectacles, but that spectacle is rendered hollow and meaningless if it is not supported by characters we care about. That’s a mistake many modern American film studios make in producing disaster flicks, relying on the tried-true archetypes of the patriarch and his family in need of rescue, which not only have been played to death but are also starting to show their misogynistic age. Enter The Wave, a Norwegian film that seeks to emulate the uniquely American disaster flick genre, and somehow ends up becoming one of the genre’s best examples in the last decade.
Our patriarch this time is Kristian, a geologist in the village of Geiranger, Norway who is about to move with his family to a larger city in order to work for an oil company. During his last day on the job, some of his research station’s sensors go offline to the bewilderment of his colleagues, but Kristian eventually realizes that this is the harbinger of a mountain’s collapse that will cause a tsunami to wipe out the tiny village. His co-workers believe him to be overreacting, but soon enough the disaster strikes, leaving Kristian to save his young daughter on an escape route out of the city, and his wife Idun to protect their teenage son in a hotel within Geiranger itself.
What The Wave does remarkably well is build tension, using character drama to escalate conflict between Kristian and Idun, as well as place Kristian as tragic figure talked out of his foresight. These characters aren’t necessarily that deep, but they are example of how to use archetypes as a starting point for character development rather than leave them as audience cyphers. The titular tsunami doesn’t even arrive until halfway through the film, and I was never bored in the moments leading up to that event. As for the wave itself, for a film costing only $8 million, it looks a hell of a lot more convincing than many Hollywood disaster flicks that cost more than ten times as much. The devastation feels real, which is necessary and unfortunately lacking if most of this film’s brethren.
The Wave isn’t without its faults though, and they are mostly due to the film’s continued devotion to genre convention. After the wave hits, Kristian’s journey to find his lost wife and son feels more than a little aimless and contrived, though Idun’s struggle still remains compelling and even shockingly violent, giving the two leads an appropriate balance of survival chops regardless of gender. But by the end of the film, the patriarch is still the one to save the day, and an appropriately dark ending is supplanted by a saccharine climax that made my eyes roll. Furthermore, for how much character development took up the first half of the film, these characters deserved much more of an epilogue than they received, the film cutting to credits just after they are all reunited.
But for its faults, The Wave is a surprisingly entertaining film. It doesn’t transcend its chosen genre, but it knows how to use the tropes of its genre effectively, and an entertaining movie is the result. If you can find a theater playing this Norwegian film near you, I definitely recommend it for the water special effects alone. It’s a fun time, nothing more, nothing less.