'The Wave' takes the disaster-film genre seriously (R)

You can’t quite write off director Roar Uthaug as Norway’s answer to Irwin Allen, but The Wave leaves no doubt that Uthaug has watched his share of the Hollywood disaster pictures that Allen produced in the 1970s (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake). The basic elements are all here: a central protagonist (Kristoffer Joner) who runs around warning people about impending doom; a woman (Ane Dahl Torp) fighting to protect her child (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) after the world has gone insane; various supporting characters whose only role in the film is to die a horrible death.

The whole thing is pure formula. But The Wave, which was Norway’s official entry for the Academy Awards, makes it work anyway. The movie’s secret weapon is its scientific plausibility: Geologists are already aware that the mountain Akerneset is liable to collapse at any moment into the fjord, and that the resulting tsunami would submerge the beautiful tourist mecca of Geiranger, which happens to be situated below sea level. 

This is a real-world dilemma depicted with all the flash and spectacle a Norwegian big-budget can buy — which is to say, not all that much. The giant wall of water seen in The Wave is perfectly fine, but it can’t stand up to similar special effects from American movies such as Hereafter or Interstellar. The plot, too, feels lifted from The Impossible, which earned Naomi Watts an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of a mother separated from her family during the 2004 tsunami that pummeled Thailand. 

But no one goes to a disaster movie expecting originality: Are there any apocalyptic calamities left that haven’t received the big-screen treatment at least twice? There is pleasure to be had in watching a well-made film go through the motions of a familiar genre, and The Wave has its share of hair-raising moments, such as the scene in which a group of people trapped in a traffic jam get out of their cars and try to outrun the body of water that’s about to crash down on their heads. Another sequence, set inside a hotel that has been submerged by the flood, reveals what happens when one member of a small group of survivors, who must remain inside a small pocket of air in order not to drown, starts to lose his mind.

In moments like that one, The Wave builds up a nice bit of genuine tension and hits some surprisingly dark notes. The rest of the movie, you’ve probably seen before. But the familiarity is part of the fun. Yes, you’ll know where all this is heading. But who cares? Pass the popcorn.

Cast: Kristoffer Joner, Ane Dahl Torp, Jonas Hoff Oftebro, Edith Haagenrud-Sande, Fridtjov Saheim.

Director: Roar Uthaug.

Screenwriters: John Kare Raake, Harald Rosenlow-Eeg.

A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 104 minutes. Disaster violence, gore, adult themes. In Norwegian with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema. 

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