Norwegian disaster film “The Wave” is a reminder that cliché-ridden, unexceptional, effects-driven cinema is not purely the domain of Hollywood studios.
Nevertheless, director Roar Uthaug’s film was selected as Norway’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar – it was not nominated – and played festivals in Toronto, London, Jakarta and beyond. Upon release in its homeland it wound up as the year’s top-grossing film.
That’s an impressive achievement, for sure. But the hype is not warranted, and “The Wave” had no business as a potential Oscar nominee.
Following a nicely foreboding prologue of news clips discussing previous rockslide tsunami incidents in Norway, “The Wave” begins – in typical genre fashion – with utter calm. Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) is on the verge of leaving his job as a geologist to take a better-paying gig.
Meanwhile, his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) and their teenage son and younger daughter are preparing for the family’s move to a new house far away from their current home, the village of Geiranger.
This opening half hour is relentlessly dull, with only Idun emerging as intriguing character, thanks to actress Dahl Torp. She is a tough, smart woman at home and at her hotel job. Her husband, Norman Reedus look-alike Kristian, is smart but prone to get lost in his thoughts.
In this case, those thoughts involve the possibility of a disaster. It soon becomes clear to Kristian that something is indeed amiss among one of Norway’s 300 unstable mountains. But he cannot stop the staggering landslide to come.
When the tsunami finally hits, in all its CGI glory, it is hard not to be briefly impressed. The effects are as strong (if not stronger) than the tsunamis of Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” or the underrated Ewan MacGregor-Naomi Watts drama “The Impossible.”
However, following several truly strong scenes, including the finest rearview mirror sight gag since “Jurassic Park,” “The Wave” becomes another ho-hum search and rescue drama.
Director Uthaug certainly knows how to build suspense, and shows some deftness in handling large-scale action. But the film’s inability to bring anything new to a tired genre ultimately means it’s a miss.
It’s also at least 20 minutes too long. Uthaug cuts between a desperate Kristian and, at the hotel, Idun and the couple’s jaded teenage son Sondre. Things with mother and son take a dark but predictable turn, and that predictability undercuts the tension.
While watching “The Wave,” I found myself thinking back to “San Andreas,” a blockbuster disaster flick that I’d watched just a few weeks before. There is no way this silly Dwayne Johnson movie could be considered a great film. Yet it was often entertaining and mostly diverting, a lumbering thing that understands what audiences want out of disaster cinema. It’s a heckuva lot more fun.
For a foreign film that chronicles a natural disaster (an avalanche) with wit and creativity, seek out 2014’s “Force Majeure.” That film is a conversation starter that also manages to be entertaining (if occasionally uncomfortable). “The Wave” could have used some of “Majeure’s” grim emotional complexity – or an appearance from Dwayne Johnson.
Starring: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Edith Haagenrud-Sande
Director: Roar Uthaug
Running time: 105 minutes
Rating: R for some language and disaster images.
The lowdown: A geologist and his family are caught in the middle of a violent tsunami that threatens a small Norwegian village.