Note: film club blog posts are both reviews and accounts of zoom watches, so are extremely spoilery. Don’t read if you’re a fan of chin-scratching ambiguity, that’s what I’m saying.
Disaster films take our favourite movie metaphors and make them real, and that’s taken to its glorious (if deadly) extreme in The Wave, where a geologist and his colleague find themselves literally stuck between a rock and a hard place – down a massive crack, with boulders falling on them from above.
We know this isn’t going to end well. Not only is Arvid, hanging on one rope, Norway’s own mayor-from-Jaws, refusing to sound a warning because of all the tourists. He’s also just told his junior colleague Jacob, hanging on the other rope, not to worry.
Arvid falls to his death, sacrificing himself for Jacob, presumably ending up entombed in his very own cairn at the bottom of the crack.
I won’t lie, I’ve been singing “get your rocks off, get your rocks off honey” ever since, so I suppose Arvid’s loss in terms of life is Primal Scream’s gain in terms of royalties.
Poor Arvid isn’t the last casualty though, as the rockfall sets off a tsunami in the fjord, heading towards the village at the end of it.
The Wave is set in tourist wetspot Geiranger in Norway, where in 1905 a real-life tsunami was caused by a rockslide. In 1934 another tsunami in Tafjorden killed 40 people.
If Gerard Butler was Norwegian, and not as hot, he’d be in The Wave, freezing the approaching water mountain with a piercing glare from his icy blue eyes. But he’s not, so we have Kevin Bacon lookalike Kristian (an excellent Kristoffer Joner), along with his team James Corden, Gareth from The Office, and Charlie Dimmock (late ’90s Google is your friend on that one).
I knew before watching it that the everyman/everygeologist hero, Kristian, didn’t die, because I came to The Wave backwards from its sequel The Quake, about the same geologist and his family getting caught up in an earthquake. The Quake is next week’s film club watch, and I haven’t checked if Norway’s Unluckiest Man survives that one – but I hope he does and there’s a third stoical disaster film in the offing, preferably involving a volcano and that mythological Norwegian staple, a kraken.
The Wave was Norway’s submission for best foreign language film at the 2016 Oscars. It didn’t make the final shortlist but it is a really good film: the perfect blend of disaster movie tropes, realistic scenarios, believable performances and a lot of sparse, nordic stoicism.
What there isn’t is much action. This disaster movie is both low-key and high stakes. All the locals can do is to get to higher ground. Escape means driving up an A-road in your pyjamas.
Some people do die – this is a disaster movie not a minor inconvenience movie – though they’re mostly nameless villagers who didn’t make it out in time. They’re discovered after the tsunami has devastated their lakeshore village, trapped under wet debris, small fires burning everywhere.
But back to the beginning. Who even knew a fjord could suffer a tsunami unless a minor comet dropped in the sea nearby? I’ve spent decades visiting the English Lake District and while people can and do fall of crags or come to a watery end, the worst thing I’ve been faced with is running out of Kendal Mint Cake half-way up Helvellyn. (And then being overtaken by an old lady with a Tesco carrier bag at the top as I crouched in terror on Striding Edge, but that is another, extremely embarrassing story.)
When the film starts, Kristian has just got a job in the oil industry, requiring a move from Geiranger to the city of Stavinger. The house is packed up and he’s heading off on the ferry with his tween daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) and teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) while his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) stays on for a couple of days finishing up on her job in a hotel.
We already know she’s super-capable, fixing leaky pipes with the plumber’s wrench while Kristian looks on, baffled; he’s the dry and dusty brains of their relationship and she’s the can-do practical one.
She also starts off in true disaster style, reassuring Kristian that the mountain will still be there in 1000 years. In a land known for equality of the sexes, it’s fitting that the hubris comes from the woman, even jokily. Director Roar Uthaug weaves familiar tropes into his sparse narrative with aplomb, freshening up the saga rather than eliciting cliché-weary groans. Among the first flickers of panic, there’s even a scene where the birds fly away.
There’s science too, which I didn’t understand, not because it was too complicated but because it was too dull: rocks and the mysteries of vanishing groundwater (which sounds like an achingly progressive chick-lit book title, I know).
But while queueing at the ferry port, off-kilter sensor readings from previous days still trouble Kristian’s brain; turning the car around he heads back to work, eventually deciding he and Julia will stay the night in their empty house and Sondre will sleep at the hotel.
Arvin and Jacob head out to explore the giant crack, the rocks start falling, and the massive wave starts to form in the fjord below. Kristian orders Margot (Charlie Dimmock) to sound the town siren, and sets his stopwatch; he knows they have ten minutes before it hits. (Normally I’d translate that into 2.5 Pot Noodles, but this month let’s go with the length of time between Biden’s inauguration and the first accusations that he wasn’t doing enough, quickly enough.)
The locals know what to do, as cars full of just-woken residents start heading for the hills. Soon there’s a traffic jam and Kristian realises he and little Julia need to run, though when the wave actually catches up with them he’s strapped himself into a stationary car with his injured neighbour Anna, having sent Julia to higher ground with Anna’s family. The wave hits, smashing through the car, and when it recedes he’s upside down but alive while Anna is dead next to him.
Meanwhile in the hotel Sondre has gone skateboarding in the basement with his headphones on; as Idun evacuates the guests to a bus, she realises he isn’t there. Hotel guests Maria and Philip stay to help her, but after they find Sondre and head for the hotel’s basement bomb shelter, the water crashes through and Maria is swept away. Philip, Idun and her son seal themselves in the shelter, which is already half-full of water.
The visuals are scarily realistic pre-wave, as a stream of 4x4s steadily emerge from driveways and wind their way round the fjord until the road starts to climb, lights steady in the midnight blue sky. The wave impact shows survival is the luck of the draw; afterwards there’s an eerie silence, the devastation illuminated by the gold and amber glow of a hundred little fires. It’s a quiet and shocked underworld as Kristian heads to the hotel in a little wooden dinghy like the boatman on the Styx, finding a smashed town and a hotel bus full of bodies.
Back in the shelter the water is rising; Philip panics and holds Sondre underwater, forcing Idun to drown him with her legs.
Kristian, Idun and Sondre find each other, appropriately, via the water pipes, banging on them to get each other’s attention, and their escape is going swimmingly (yes I really did that) until Kristian apparently succumbs. It’s only temporary though – he’s in The Quake after all – and he’s eventually resuscitated, before they all reunite with Julia up the mountain.
The screen card explains that in real life a new rockfall will happen at some point, they just don’t know when, so enjoy your upcoming holiday in Geiranger.
The Good-Bad Film Club Rating
A high tide in disaster movies, The Wave is just swell: Good-Good.
The Wave is available from various outlets including:
Watch the trailer now: