Disaster movies work by preying upon our fears of being powerless in the face of nature’s power. But disaster movies are also incredibly formulaic. There will always be characters in these movies that know the disaster is coming only for his warning to fall on deaf ears. There will always be a race against time to try and save the lives of family members in the wake of the disaster. The Wave, the Norwegian disaster film from director Roar Uthaug, hits many of the expected notes of a disaster movie, though Uthaug does have a number of compelling moments crammed within the familiar aspects of the genre.
In the small village of Geiranger, nestled underneath the Åkneset fjords, the looming threat of a natural disaster is a matter of everyday life. In 1905, when a mass of rocks crashed into the water it created a massive tsunami that consumed the whole village, claiming the lives of 40 people. In 2015, the rocks are monitored by a geological team, including Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), who is about to leave the town and take a high paying job with an oil company. His wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) works at local hotel, which draws guests with its lovely views of the massive natural formations. Before leaving, Kristian notices that everything may not be as safe as presumed, and he fears a massive rock slide that trigger another deadly tsunami. As expected, the rocks crash into the water, leaving only ten minutes for the residents of Geiranger to reach safety.
In far too many regards, The Wave fails to differentiate itself from all the other disaster movies of the past. We have a smart, capable lead character whose warnings aren’t headed by his colleagues, which leads to his eventual demise. The familial aspect of the story is also torn from countless other disaster movies with a family going through a transition, in this case moving. Naturally, when disaster strikes the family is split, leading the man to go and search for his wife and son that are lost in the debris. Of course the wife and son are locked in a flooded room, because nothing says disaster film like people trapped underground with the looming threat of drowning.
All isn’t bleak about The Wave. When the big disaster hits, Uthaug pulls out all of his tricks – the ominous siren blaring throughout the town, the birds fleeing the rock formation. It all culminates in a clever scene where Kristian and a bystander are in a car trying to shelter themselves from the powerful tsunami. The water crashes through the windows as the characters and camera are trapped under the rush of the waves. It’s the most impressive sequence of the film, thrilling and frightening. The other thing that The Wave does better than some of its disaster film contemporaries, like San Andreas, is that it places its characters in situations where they have to save strangers, not just their family members. When these characters fail in their attempts at heroism, there’s a real feeling of loss that comes from the screen.
The Wave is a disaster flick that only stands out because of its difference in language. It’s not a bad film, nor is it a particularly good one. It’s a mixed bag of cinema, sometimes leaning to heavily on the crutch of its subgenre and other times truly astounding with some suspenseful moments. Roar Uthaug has shown enough chops behind the camera to get the job for the next Tomb Raider movie, let’s just hope it’s not a generic as The Wave.