The Wave redefines the disaster movie

A smaller disaster with stronger human impact.

On any given year, Hollywood pumps out a dozen or so disaster movies. Terrorist attacks, alien invasions, or natural disasters loom, all of which are only visible to a select few people who have to save the world. Strained logic, two-dimensional characters, and clichéd plots make for hollow spectacle. In most Hollywood disaster movies, the only believable catastrophes are the films themselves.

Enter The Wave, Norway’s first disaster movie: a small scaled mega-spectacle, a little film about a colossal event, a movie with small choices and enormous impact. Retreading clichés to correct the absurdities sometimes inherent in them, The Wave feels like a sure-handed amalgamation of European social realist films and mega-budget Hollywood action flicks. We actually believe the film. We care about the characters and what happens to them.

Living in a remote part of Norway, where a potentially unstable mountain could create a tsunami, a geologist, Kristian, and his family, are preparing to move when their sensors begin malfunctioning, showing contractions in the mountain. After leaving town, Kristian turns back to monitor a potential quake and landslide, which could wipe out the small, riverside town. There are implications of marital conflict, and a jaded teenage son distancing himself from the rest of the family. But, as these films have taught us, nothing brings a family together quite like death and destruction.

About half of The Wave’s running time is spent with the characters and the environment — not as a kind of commercial for the rest of the film, but an integral backbone for the visceral impact. The Wave gives itself time to build atmosphere and instill fear. In almost every shot, the mountain rests in the background, threatening to crack at any moment.

Despite a three-minute sequence towards the end that threatens to undercut the rest of the film, The Wave is grounded and sturdy, avoiding the shaky fault lines in most disaster films. The characters make logical decisions based on their situations. Kristian’s colleagues, who monitor the mountain and are skeptical of a landslide and tsunami, are more ambivalent than stupid for the plot’s sake. The film doesn’t rely on overreaching CGI, but on suggestion. Like Jaws, which didn’t depict the shark until the climax due to budgetary restrictions, The Wave uses its “money shots” conservatively and to overwhelming impact.

Although the death toll in The Wave is somewhat low, especially since the focus is narrowed to a happening in a small town, the human impact feels far greater. While in last year’s San Andreas, The Rock’s character completely ignored his duty as a search and rescue worker in order to save his family, The Wave posits that this disaster is happening to more than just the main family. Altruism comes at a cost. When people are selfish, other bystanders pay for their carelessness. No death or sacrifice goes unnoticed.

The Wave feels like the answer key to the Hollywood formula. It isn’t going to rewrite the rules, but it provides a solid solution.