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Wave, The (2015)
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by Jay Seaver

"No Norwegian disaster."
3 stars

It's odd but fortunate that "The Wave" is getting an American theatrical release; it's the sort of international genre film that tends to go straight to video-on-demand and maybe doesn't even get a Region A Blu-ray. It's understandable, since massive destruction is the thing Hollywood does better than anyone else and there's thus little need to import more, despite the focus and specificity that something produced elsewhere can offer while still looking great on the big screen.

In this case, the place is the town of Geiranger, a scenic spot on a fjord sitting beneath the mountain Ã…kneset. Geologist Kristian Ejikod (Kristoffer Joner) has been part of the team monitoring the mountain for years, though he's about to take a job for an oil company in the city. On his last day, they get some odd seismic reasons which bear further investigation, because a big enough rockslide would trigger a wave that, when traveling through the narrow straits in the area, could reach a height of 80 meters when it arrives at the town ten minutes later. For reference, the hotel where Kristian's wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) is putting in one of her last shifts, is 1.7 meters above sea level.

There's a certain template to the disaster movie built out of how disasters often happen relatively quickly but audiences generally expect to spend more than an hour and a half in the theater once they've paid the going rate for a screen with all the relevant bells and whistles: A getting-to-know-you period establishing some sort of personal stakes, a visual-effects centerpiece, and then, unless you can afford/sell repeated aftershocks or recurrent catastrophe, the rescue of people who got trapped in a place that was momentarily safe but will now kill them slowly. You can practically set your watch to it, and either director Roar Uthaug or one of the writers was cheeky enough to actually have Kristian do so, starting a ten minute countdown as soon as he finds out that the mountain has collapsed (it's a sporty model that also indicates elevation, so we know exactly how much higher everyone has to climb while it counts down). Its not hard to guess what happens on either side of those ten minutes, either.

While the filmmakers may dutifully follow the instructions, they're not exactly lazy about it. The easy thing to do would be to have characters start loudly yelling as soon as one of the obvious sources of melodrama pops up around Kristian: He's detail-oriented about things his colleagues will let slide! He's uprooting his family, even though one or more would really rather not move! He sometimes prioritizes work and science over his home life! We're dutifully led through those moments, sometimes as plainly as we're shown his watch, but the obviousness of it is countered by how Kristian, Idun, and even the colleagues at the monitoring station who aren't initially so inclined to be alarmed as him are mature adults and will generally handle things like that. For that matter, the Ekijolds' teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and moppet daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) are not exactly troublesome, but fairly well-adjusted kids who don't put their parents in tricky situations unreasonably.

That falls to the mountain which chooses a lousy time to fall apart, although it does so in impressive fashion. The producers of this film don't have a Hollywood effects budget but they get a good bang for their buck; after spending much of the first act talking about how the foot line has moved fractions of centimeters, they deliver an image that socks with its scale as much as with pure rendering power, and Uthaug wrings as much tension as he can out of those ten minutes. I don't know if it got Imax or 3D releases in Scandanavia, but it's got the look of something that could have. Of course, that look changes rather sharply once the disaster hits, with the sharp, bright photography - enough so that I wondered if it was the right latitude and time of year for the sun to never truly set - giving way to darker (almost too dark to see clearly), muddier images without the same pop, with a few moments that are surprisingly nasty. This isn't one where doomed supporting characters just get pulled underwater and disappear.

The secret weapon in that intensity is that, while the film is built so that Kristoffer Joner's Kristian is the protagonist, it's Ane Dahl Torp who turns out to be the movie's real star as Idun. This isn't unexpected; not only does the film have a moment early on where Idun is fixing the sink and Kristian doesn't know which wrench to hand her, but mothers buckling down and getting stuff done is more or less to be expected. Joner gives a decent enough performance, but he's got a character who, until the last act, is always between things and even at a remove when the main action starts; Idun is always focused on something, and everything Torp does in the role makes Idun seem more complete rather than pulling her in a different direction.

There's not necessarily any sort of virtue in a smaller scale for this sort of movie, and "The Wave" shouldn't be praised just for having a tighter focus and avoiding the overkill of its Hollywood equivalents - the grandiosity is part of the fun of this genre! It is entertaining and successful at what it attempts, though, and I suspect it was thoroughly nerve-wracking in Norway, where it likely got the biggest screens with the subwoofers under every seat rather than playing in living rooms and boutique houses. And, of course, where there's a mountain just waiting to fall on whatever fjord one might live on.

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originally posted: 03/09/16 12:38:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantastic Fest For more in the 2015 Fantastic Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2015 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.

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  04-Mar-2016 (R)
  DVD: 21-Jun-2016


  DVD: 21-Jun-2016

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