“Can people in the area be warned in time?”

I don’t love disaster films. In many cases the genre becomes a venue for explosive visual effects at the detriment of quality acting and resonate emotion. Hollywood loves including scientists for an environmentalist commentary, military personnel for a cold-hearted government angle, and the supposed little guy turned hero saving family. It’s always too much with the heroes always proving to be brawny fireman or first responders with God-complexes complementing their selfless empathy “in the moment”. We never get an actual “little guy”—that regular Joe who really can’t do anything but attempt rescuing the ones he/she loves. I get the escapist attitude the industry constantly projects upon the movies, but I for one would rather see someone like me endure than pro-wrestlers punching Mother Nature in the face.

Norwegian director Roar Uthaug seems to agree as his disaster epic Bølgen [The Wave] does exactly that. Taking a page out of Independence Day‘s book, his screenwriters John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eegmake their scientist the lead character. And in contrast to Roland Emmerich‘s surprisingly effective blockbuster, they don’t introduce an outsider from the army or otherwise to interfere. This is key because it means we’re never forced to divide our attention. We aren’t worried about Jeff Goldblum‘s family (father, ex-wife, and her POTUS boss) as well as Will Smith‘s (girlfriend and her son) with random players like Randy Quaid to boot. No, everything revolves around geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) and his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp)—a couple on the rocks ready for a fresh start.

So there are no jump cuts cross-country to see what so-and-so is doing; no back and forth “I told you so” belittling efforts on everyone’s part to save lives. Just because it’s science doesn’t mean it’s exact. That’s why Norway needs people monitoring Åkneset’s fissure-riddled mountain pass (think the San Andreas fault going vertically into the sky) 24/7. It’s about checking equipment, finding patterns, and knowing the right time to pull the evacuation alarm. Frankly now isn’t that moment. It’s tourist season and the instruments don’t show anything as glaringly off. Sure the ground water levels plummeted suddenly, but that’s probably just a malfunction since it doesn’t make sense. And it’s not like Kristian is in a level state of mind to be the voice of reason either.

No, this is his last day on the mountain before starting a job with an oil company in the big city that will allow him to spend more time with his wife and kids (Jonas Hoff Oftebro‘s Sondre and Edith Haagenrud-Sande‘s Julia). He’s a workaholic who lives and breathes Åkneset, so his off-kilter manic return to the office with a wild prediction seems little more than a man not yet ready to relinquish the past. And maybe he isn’t. In order to deliver his hypothesis he leaves the kids in the car. He’s so worked up that he forgets he has and by the time this realization sets in they’ve already been picked up and taken to the hotel Idun has a couple more days to finish out.

This is crucial expository information to see the familial dynamic at play. The impending wave is inconsequential. Kristian and Idun haven’t been drawn to experience the disaster as much as it’s been created to test their love. It’s a brilliantly simple conceit that works to Uthaug’s benefit in that he doesn’t have to show the wave as a character. An act of God doesn’t have consciousness or malicious intent—it merely is. So we aren’t soaring through the sky randomly watching the seismic shifting. No, we’re in the crevice with Arvid (Fridtjov Såheim) and Jacob (Arthur Berning) battling it. And instead of lingering on the wave bearing down upon Geiranger fjord, we see it through rearview mirrors and quick glances back as everyone runs for their lives.

When all is said and done, the disaster lasts exactly ten minutes—the time it takes for the tsunami to travel from Åkneset to Geiranger. What matters is how Kristian and the others cope. This is the part where The Wave truly excels above the Hollywood effects machine because its stakes are real. It’s not about cartoonish chaos and buildings falling that we care nothing about. This is also why J.A. Bayona‘s The Impossible was so good: they understand the water is a catalyst. We’re interested not how the world will look, but how humanity perseveres and honestly if it even can. How many people have the knee-jerk reaction to save someone as they pass him/her by and how many care only about him/herself? You’d be surprised.

Suddenly those quiet moments of emotional stress and psychological fracturing on behalf of a broken family struggling to stay afloat are given a chance at redemption. Chaos reigns and people die—some we’ve learned to care about and others victims of their unfortunate circumstances. Actions possess dire consequences as decisions to prove their humanity remains intact risk them losing everything. But just as leaving the surest path to salvation all but puts the last nail in the coffin, what’s to say that initial path won’t also fail? When nature wreaks havoc there’s no safe place to hide. Salvation becomes a tomb and safety a false promise. And at a certain point you have to take a cold hard look at your situation and realize what must be done.

Uthaug and crew almost deliver the Holy Grail by ending things on a note Hollywood would never dare, but I can’t fault them too much for letting a glimmer of hope shine through. Disaster films are kind of made with that purpose, because without hope of survival there isn’t really any reason to continue on. And to their benefit they provide enough dark bits of terror outside the wave’s unpredictability to satisfy even the most unsentimental of audience members such as me. Our world is a nasty place with horrors lying just out of sight everywhere you look, so it’s only right that the happiest of endings doesn’t prove fairy tale perfect. Death comes when you least expect it—sometimes we need reminders to remember what truly matters.

Score: 8/10

Rating: R | Runtime: 104 minutes | Release Date: August 28th, 2015 (Norway)
Studio: Nordisk Filmdistribusjon / Magnolia Pictures
Director(s): Roar Uthaug
Writer(s): John Kåre Raake & Harald Rosenløw-Eeg