By far, the most interesting thing about Roar Uthaug’s The Wave is the fact that it’s only being considered an “art title” because it’s foreign and has subtitles. After all, we all know that if a thing isn’t in English, it’s weightier. That it requires the ability to read subtitles is also a cultural plus. Right? Well, no, but it plays to a certain innate sense of cultural inferiority — and it has done so for about as long as there have been movies. The thing is that, most of the time, we only get the more toffe-nosed titles from foreign shores. Norway’s The Wave is more of a meat-and-potatoes thing. That’s to say: it’s a mainstream movie that happens to be in Norwegian. It is, in fact, a disaster picture. Think The Impossible (2012) by way of Jaws (1975), but set in a rural tourist town on a fjord in Norway, and the source of the tsunami is a crumbling mountain. Yeah, it’s an old Irwin Allen movie with subtitles, and I don’t mean that as a negative.
As a story, The Wave is pretty hoary stuff. It’s the old saw about the One Person who is certain something awful is going to happen, but … no one will listen to him. In other words, this dates back at least to Jimmy Stewart being sure the tail is going to drop off a commercial airliner and cause a crash in No Highway in the Sky (1951). Here we have a geologist, Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), trading in his laid-back job keeping track of seismic shenanigans above a fjord for a job in the big city. But just as he’s about to take his leave — with his wife (Ane Dahl Torp) and kids (Edith Haagenrud-Sande and Jonas Hoff Oftebro) — he realizes something is wrong, something is about to happen. But there’s a problem. It might be faulty readings and this is a tourist town at the height of the season. No one is anxious to empty the town.
OK, this is predictable — but reasonably solid — material. Not as predictable is how well it works and how much the setting helps it all feel reasonably fresh. Director Uthaug manages to milk every ounce of tension out of the material. He makes the characters feel real and earn our sympathy. It’s a pretty neat trick, considering that there’s not much here you haven’t encountered over the years in one form or another. Just as astonishing is the way he and his crew make a (roughly) $7 million movie look like a Hollywood blockbuster. It’s no wonder that The Wave has paved the way for Uthaug to make the leap to a genuine Hollywood production with Tomb Raider.
In the end, I think the biggest — and pleasantest — surprise is that it’s an intelligent disaster picture. Oh, it hits almost every possible trope, but it does so with a degree of smarts, and it does it well. The Wave is being touted as Norway’s first disaster movie. I doubt anyone is going to dispute that. Honestly, when you say Norwegian film, the only things that come to mind are a couple of quirky horror movies. This is definitely a higher-class affair. Rated R for some language and disaster images.