John Andreas Andersen’s The Quake opens in the wake of an earthquake and landslide in the Norwegian town of Geiranger, a few hundred kilometers outside of Oslo. Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), a local geologist, managed to save not only his family, but legions more by recognizing the warning signs when other geologists did not. A clearly shaken Kristian is nervous about appearing on a national talk show, but his wife, Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), tenderly encourages him to proceed on stage and accept the accolades he deserves. Suddenly, the film cuts forward three years, to Kristian living on his own in rural Norway, estranged from Idun and his children and obsessing over the possibility of a monster quake striking Geiranger, maybe even Oslo. Kristian will, of course, turn out to be right, and he will have to make his way back to the capital to rescue the very people—his family and former colleagues—who think he’s gone off the deep end with his earthquake paranoia.
Thus begins a Spielberg-esque disaster flick in which spectacular peril serves to reconstitute a fractured family. It proceeds in a way familiar from many a Hollywood production—shades of Volcano, Dante’s Peak, and more recent fare like 2012 abound—but at a much slower pace. The quake foretold in the title of this film serves as the climax, but unlike an American super-production, where danger often sets in after the first act, The Quake‘s titular cataclysm, which sees Kristian’s family trapped inside a collapsing high-rise Radisson hotel, comes in the final quarter of the film. When the devastating quake—rendered with convincing, if sparsely used, special effects—finally strikes, separating Kristian’s family just as he’s ushering them to safety, it creates a truly suspenseful scenario of vertiginous falls and last-minute saves.
The hour-plus of drama that precedes the moment when Kristian’s dispersed family is suddenly trapped within the collapsing skyscraper, though, isn’t convincing enough to compensate for the lack of action. At first, it’s plausible that, in the three years since Kristian was feted as a hero geologist, his paranoia and fragile mental state have made him something of a pariah in geology circles. However, after numerous tremors accompanied by warnings from the man who foresaw the Geiranger disaster, it stretches belief to think Kristian’s old colleagues in the local survey team wouldn’t listen to him. We’re to take it that the head of that team dismisses as irrelevant not just Kristian’s warnings, but a citywide power outage, the sudden fracturing of an opera building’s foundation, and a colleague killed by a collapsing tunnel.
These scenes in which Kristian’s fervent warnings are ignored by those around him begin to feel like so much padding while the viewer awaits the inevitable climax. This drawn-out boy-who-cried-wolf arc also creates little opportunity for the main character to develop. Kristian was right about Geiranger, and he’s right about Oslo, so there’s not much call for him to change—to reconsider his choices or actions. His static characterization as the brilliant hermit who sees what others don’t makes Andersen’s film smack of a conspiracy-theorist fantasy, in which those who doubt the insight of the eccentric male recluse are righteously punished by the situation he tried to warn them about. In the domestic front of The Quake‘s plot, this plays out as the reconstitution of a shattered patriarchy, as the hero Kristian reclaims his place at the head of the family after they, too, ignore his warnings. This conceit of this high-concept disaster film may be simple, but it reveals a lot.