Disaster movies have a long, rich history in Hollywood and beyond, beginning with a British film called Fire! that was made in 1901. The heyday of the disaster film was in the 1970s, when movies like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno struck gold at the box office and won Academy Awards. The genre returned in the 1990s with special effects extravaganzas led by Titanic. Since that time, elements of the disaster movie have been blended with other forms (especially sci-fi) in films characterized by grand scale and outsized budgets — despite generally diminishing creative and financial returns.
The latest revival of the disaster movie comes not from Hollywood but Norway. Director Roar Uthaug's The Wave is the first Scandinavian disaster movie, and it arrives as the antidote to decades of failed attempts at mining catastrophe for edge-of-your-seat entertainment. Expertly crafted and riveting throughout, The Wave puts Hollywood to shame by reminding us that character and story are the essential building blocks for good films of every budget and type.
The Wave also bears a hidden advantage: Its disaster scenario is one that's certain to occur in the future. The title refers to a deadly tsunami of the kind that threatens Norway every day, caused by unstable mountainsides that soar above deep and narrow sea inlets known as fjords.
There are 300 such unstable mountains in Norway. The most famous is Akerneset, which has a system of fissures more than 800 meters long and a gap that expands measurably with each passing year. When the mountainside fails, it will drop seven million cubic meters of rock into the fjord below and create a wave 80 meters high that will destroy the small seaside resort town of Geiranger. It's only a matter of time.
The Wave focuses on a fictional family in the midst of moving away from Geiranger for the financial benefits of a larger city. Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) is a geologist working on a team that monitors the seismic shifts at Akerneset. His wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) works at a resort located in the path of potential destruction. They struggle to save themselves and their two children when disaster strikes.
Multiple heroes emerge in The Wave, but none of the type familiar from American action movies. Kristian is deeply conflicted about uprooting his family and wouldn't be anyone's first choice to carry a child to higher ground before a tsunami hits. Idun is strong and practical but in ways familiar from real life. The film makes it easy to identify with family members and relate to their struggles when tensions rise.
Shot mostly in Geiranger with extras from the local population, The Wave's cinematography captures the majesty and destructive power of the natural setting. A helicopter fly-over of Akerneset as conditions worsen shows the mountain's real and highly visible cracks. Joner and Torp performed their own stunts for the eventful final act, adding to the film's seemingly effortless realism. The special effects are modest by today's standards but entirely persuasive in the context of the film.
There's nothing revolutionary about The Wave, but its effectiveness is an eye- opener all the same — especially given its $6 million budget, which represents 2.4 percent of the $250 million spent on current superhero-disaster movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which may be described as a disaster of another kind. There's a lesson in there somewhere.