Being in a disaster - as I was a few years ago when my city was destroyed by an earthquake - lends a unique perspective on disaster films. It’s an experience that really exposes the likes of 2012 and San Andreas for the destruction porn that they are. But the best disaster films, while delivering that spectacle, also actually tell stories, and that’s how Roar Uthaug’s The Wave succeeds.
The Wave was introduced to the Fantastic Fest audience as a huge-scale Hollywood disaster movie made in Norway, and that’s absolutely what it is. This movie adheres to formula note for note. Set in the Norwegian fjords, it concerns geologist Kristian on his last day before moving away with his family. His job? Monitoring the ground for seismic movements, so as to forewarn the local tourist town of impending rockslides and the 80-metre tsunami that would subsequently engulf it.
You can probably guess where this goes: warning signs crop up that only Kristian is willing to acknowledge; ignored by everyone, he desperately tries to convince his former colleagues of the coming disaster; said disaster occurs, at which point the film transitions into a survival story. So far, so familiar - my Fantastic Fest audience, among the most genre-savvy in the world, chuckled along with every disaster trope thrown up by the story.
But I’ll tell you what: for me, at least, that ironic amusement (blech) gave way to genuine emotion in the second half of the film. I found the titular disaster highly distressing. Though obviously exaggerated for dramatic effect, it successfully evoked the feelings of impotence - and the human interaction - that natural disasters bring out in people. It’s hard to separate my enjoyment of The Wave from my personal history with disasters, but God damn it, this is the first disaster film to really hit me on a gut emotional level.
It helps that The Wave’s story focus is small. Production-wise, there’s an impressive (but not overwhelming) amount of CGI destruction, and the post-tsunami art direction is horrifying and beautifully-lit, but ultimately this is a story about one family. Far from Roland Emmerich’s sprawling ensemble pieces, we only really follow four characters. While they’re not the world’s most idiosyncratic, they’re well-performed, selling the danger and struggle they find themselves in, as well as their relationships (helped along by a bunch of fun script beats).
There are even a couple of surprises. There's a surprising volume of character-driven humour for a film of this type. Ane Dahl Torp proves a terrific alternate protagonist for a good portion of the film, and could easily carry the film on her own. In particular, one mid-film moment involving her character is genuinely shocking, almost making up for a late-movie moment that fails to deliver the shock it promises.
But perhaps The Wave’s biggest surprise is just how damned effective it is while being as slavish to formula as it is. We’ve seen this basic story told dozens of times, if not more, but over the years, the skill with which it’s told has vanished, replaced by exquisitely rendered but emotionally empty VFX sequences. The VFX sequences are there - and indeed, rendered exquisitely, with the wave itself moving like some demonic fractal pattern - but they’re given weight by the sincerity and heart with which they’re treated. In other recent disaster flicks, characters running away from destruction feels pat and almost comical. In The Wave, I was huddled back in my seat, praying they’d make it.
There’s a reason why formulas and cliches have developed the way they do: when they’re executed well, they just work. It’s just rare that you see skilled filmmakers fully indulging their genre while also striving to tell a great story. Thanks to going back to basics, The Wave is as powerful as the Earth itself.