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Arts & Life

'The Wave' Is An Intimate Twist On The Full Disaster Movie Dance

courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Silje Breivik and Kristoffer Joner in 'The Wave.'

The hero of Norwegian director Roar Uthaug's The Wave is a modest geologist. The danger to humanity in he faces is that a mountainside may fall into a fiord and cause a deadly tsunami.

What's refreshing is that there's not a single terrorist in the picture, no guns, and no actors bulked up like comic book freaks. The cast in The Wave look pretty much like human beings, and in fact, the film is about how roughly normal human beings react to a natural disaster which does not involve the fate of the entire cosmos.

Unlike San Andreas or the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Wave has discipline on its side. For one thing, the Norwegian film industry, even with help from Sweden, can't afford extended special effects like flooding downtown San Francisco. The Wave doesn't even have the resources to show one fjord submerged.

So far, this is a significant list of what The Wave is not and what it cannot, but the result is a picture that leaves you space to breathe and to worry a bit about a few human beings.

Apparently, a steep side of one of those magnificent and dramatic Norwegian fjords can collapse and set off an immense tidal wave. Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) has been the cautious geologist in charge of watching over things. Now he plans to leave this job to work in an oil company office.

He tells his wife and their two children that the new apartment has a good view of the city, a first clue that he won't leave, because no movie character anywhere can leave this gorgeous and potentially dangerous place for a desk job. Plus, in a film called The Wave, there's got to be a wave, and it's got to be the one the look-outs worry about. Imagine King Kong if the ape is shy and won't leave his jungle?

I admire The Wave for its scale and modesty. It takes time for personal moments in the family, or among the staff of the lookout station. Two assistants rappel into a rock crevasse to check on sensors that monitor rock movements. They look puny and vulnerable deep in that slit. Characters' reactions aren't heroic either. When the mountain starts to fall, Kristian looks immobile. You want to yell at him to get in the car and drive up the hill, as his own emergency procedure manual says to do. Kristian's wife works in the resort hotel, and for a long moment she looks stuck before she reacts and gets the guests out of the building and into a bus.

This small film gives some dignity to the event and the people. It's not a jokey spectacle like The Towering Inferno or San Andreas, which puts most of California into ruin. In The Wave, it's just one fjord, and you can get your mind around the progressive loss of the things that make us feel civilized. When the floods of 2013 hit Colorado, it became a process of slow subtraction – first the electricity went, then the gas, then the water – and with each loss people tended to feel blank and then silenced.

After the tsunami in The Wave, survivors sit empty-eyed and passive, their reactions muted and their bodies on the road to catatonic.

The Wave also pictures the destruction in intimate terms. Floating bodies are close by. You know some of them – you've seen them alive earlier in the film. It's a sober movie, but not a misery. The Wave is small-ish in scale; yet it performs the full disaster movie dance. It knows how to unroll the crises, so that Kristian has to fight them off one by one. The movie knows whom it can kill and who has to be standing at the end.

The Wave makes you nervous, but unlike San Andreas, you don't wish death on anyone just because they're annoying.

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