When it comes to disaster films, the U.S. tends to like its action big, its explosions bigger, and to keep the destruction massive. With The Wave, director Roar Uthaug attempts to make the Norwegian take on the genre, with a much smaller budget and a stronger focus on character and actual story. In that regard, The Wave is an ambitious film, trying to do more with less and largely succeeding in the first half. Unfortunately, when the eponymous wave hits, all of The Wave’s character building and plot matters as much as it would in say San Andreas, in that its all for nothing.
As Uthaug presents in his film’s opening moments, the Norwegian mountainsides are filled with hundreds of unstable mountains that will eventually collapse, causing disaster in the nearby villages. Earthquakes, landslides, and of course tidal waves have decimated areas, much in the way we’ll see the film recreate. It adds a level of terror to the proceedings, knowing that this is mostly an inevitability at this point.
Geologist Kristian Eikfjord (The Revenant’s Kristoffer Joner) is moving his family away from the tourist village of Geiranger into the city in order to begin a new job. Even as his family is moving the final boxes out of their house, Kristian is fretting over worrisome seismic changes happening he noticed on his last day at his old job.
The Wave takes its time to allow its audience to care for the Eikfjord family. The first half gives quiet moments between Kristian and his family as they prepare for the move, creating a stronger bond to these characters than the usual disaster film would allow for. Kristian’s wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) hopes that 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 upcoming change.
The Wave’s strength comes in its desire to build its audience’s relationship with the Eikfjord’s – which it does surprisingly well – yet when the wave does fall upon Geiranger, the film falls into the usual traps of the bigger budget disaster films it attempts to separate itself from. It’s already laughable that this gigantic incident comes on the Eikfjord’s last day in town, car fully packed and ready to go, but the supporting cast that comes out of the woodwork is a grouping of action movie cliches.
Post-wave, The Wave struggles to escape the generic story that we’ve come to see from this type of film, as the family attempts to reunite once separated and cheesy moments that are played for serious tensity never work as was intended.
Uthaug does get nearly there, making a better type of disaster film with strong characters, and he 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. What Uthaugh ultimately creates is a more bland version of The Impossible, without as strong of a sense of stakes and inserted with hilarious tropes added on. The Wave states that these incidents are inevitable, but it seems as if the problems that plague this type of movie are inevitable, too.