When it comes to disaster films, the U.S. tends to like its action big, its explosions bigger, and its destruction absolutely devastating. With The Wave, director Roar Uthaug offers a Norwegian take on the genre, which apparently means, compared to what the U.S. typically gets behind, a smaller budget and a stronger focus on character and story. The Wave, then, could seem like an ambitious film, trying to do more with less—and largely succeeding in its first half. But when the eponymous wave hits, all of The Wave’s character-building and plot matters as much as it would in a San Andreas or a 2012, in that it’s mostly for nothing.
Uthaug presents in his film’s opening moments a Norway filled with hundreds of unstable mountain ranges that will eventually collapse, causing disaster in nearby villages. In reality, earthquakes, landslides and, of course, tidal waves have decimated Norwegian regions, much in the way the film irecreates, which adds a level of terror to the proceedings. The Wave is an inevitability at this point.
Geologist Kristian Eikfjord (The Revenant’s Kristoffer Joner) is about to begin a new job in the city, yet, even as his family moves their final boxes out of their house in tourist village of Geiranger, Kristian frets over some worrisome seismic changes he’s noticed on his last day. We understand his worry: The Wave takes its time to care for the Eikfjord family. The film’s first half stages plenty of quiet moments between Kristian and his loved ones as they prepare for the move. Kristian’s wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) hopes the new job will be a new start for the family, while their kids Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sandre) have varying degrees of interest in the big change.
And yet, when the wave does fall upon Geiranger, the film drowns in the usual trappings of the bigger budget disaster films from which it seems to want to separate itself. It’s already a laughable coincidence that this gigantic incident comes on the Eikfjord’s last day in town, car fully packed and ready to go, but the film then has a supporting cast come out of the woodwork to fulfill every action movie cliché. Post-wave, The Wave struggles to escape its generic story as the Eikfjord family attempts to reunite once separated, but these moments only make way for more cheesiness and contrivance.
Uthaug is occasionally able to build tension in fantastic ways, such as when the entire town is warned of the impending doom only ten minutes prior, leading to a race to safety, but what Uthaugh ultimately creates is a much blander version of The Impossible, without as strong of a sense of stakes and hilarious tropes splashed on top. The film may claim that such disastrous incidents are inevitable, but if The Wave is any indication, the problems that plague this type of movie are also inevitable as well.
Director: Roar Uthaug
Writers: John Kåre Raake, Harald Rosenløw-Eeg
Starring: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Edith Haagenrud-Sandre
Release Date: March 4, 2016
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.