Roar Uthaug’s The Wave is true to its maker’s name, with a seat-rattling Dolby Atmos mix and the upsurge of the thunderously orchestrated score easily scaling the 250-foot high of a spectacularly computer-generated tsunami that looks every inch a natural disaster. Even on a meager-by-Hollywood-standards $8 million budget, the titular cataclysmic event is so realistically rendered as to put the water-logged ruination of blockbusters like The Day After Tomorrow and the recent San Andreas to shame.
Submitted as Norway’s foreign-language Oscar entry, but with its eye clearly on the multiplex, The Wave is a perfect imitation of American studio blockbusters—and that’s exactly the problem. A slow-build first act promises more insightful characterization, but once the wave hits, everything that follows is submerged by the filmmakers’ blatant bid for an international audience and the crowd-pleasing clichés the film emulates almost too well.
A factual prologue showing the devastation of a tsunami induced by a landslide in the village of Loen in 1905 informs us that there are 300 unstable mountainsides in Norway, all tinkering on the edge of an imminent collapse. Geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) has waited every day of his life for that next seismic shift, and as the most dedicated member of his early warning center in the isolated town of Geiranger, he pays more attention to the surrounding fjords than his family. But his wife, Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), is hoping this will all change now that they’re relocating to the city, her husband switching to an unspecified job in big oil for which he seems in no way suited.
A casually dressed, contemplative thinker, Kristian is at one with nature’s incremental movements, naturally more drawn to snow-capped peaks than the fast-paced demands of the office space. Joner taps into Kristian’s crimpling fear of his future as a worker drone, his features and posture visibly stiffening whenever neighbors and colleagues mention the new job. A man so in love with everything he’s saying goodbye to, Kristian is even caught staring wistfully at an old business card—the same look he gives to old photos of close knit co-workers. Kristian’s skateboarding teenage son, Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), is similarly saturnine about the move. Far from being a formulaic, smart-alecky brat, raring for some big city adventure, he quietly confides in his father just how much he cherishes the life they’ve built in the mountains and the shared family history, which gives their home a “soul.”
Soulful introspection being atypical for a genre that predeterminedly sets up the semblances of human connection only to sever them as a crass ploy for audience response, the screenwriters take the time to sketch an imperiled family worth caring about, but any goodwill is soon weathered by wave after wave of contrivance following the initial town-leveling event. The manipulative plotting repeatedly strives to elicit emotion via separation anxiety (Sondre can’t hear his mother calling his name, or an entire hotel evacuating, because he’s wearing headphones), while ludicrously cheesy staging (a second round of don’t-you-die-on-me CPR is administered harder and faster to bring a seemingly deceased principal character back to life) is likely to have you biting your nails—if only to suppress incredulous laughter.
An entire town and its inhabitants are unblinkingly wiped out during The Wave’s climax, but even at the cost of all those lives, Uthaug stops at nothing to reunite his barely traumatized nuclear family, going so far as to pay off their implausible survival with a teary-eyed, slow-motion embrace, which as the camera cranes back, unintentionally draws the audience’s eyes to the surrounding wreckage and body count of all those who weren’t so obviously engineered to make it out alive and fully intact.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 7—18.