‘The Wave’: a shocking tsunami that doesn’t turn silly

Kristoffer Joner in "The Wave." CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

Fact: An eroding mountain in the Norwegian town of Geiranger may one day collapse into the fjord below, prompting a tsunami that could wipe out the village. What exactly would that look like? Director Roar Uthaug hazards a guess with his action drama “The Wave.”

You might call it a disaster movie – but let’s not. For American moviegoers that phrase goes hand in hand with outlandish images: obviously computer-generated tornadoes, for instance, a toppled Statue of Liberty, the Rock rappelling out of a helicopter. But “The Wave” has something that similarly themed stateside releases don’t, which is restraint.

Oh, and character development, too. More than half the movie is spent introducing the main players and setting the scene. Those characters are the wiry, dreamy Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) and his level-headed wife, Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), who are about to move to the city with their children, sullen teen Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and his towheaded younger sister, Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande).

Kristian is relocating to take a new job after years spent working as a geologist keeping an eye on Geiranger’s mountain, searching for clues of a catastrophe. Should that happen, he and his coworkers would sound an alarm to warn citizens that it’s time to flee to higher ground.

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On Kristian’s last day of work, computers in the office control room indicate something is amiss. A follow-up trip into one of the mountain’s giant crevasses – OK, so there is some rappelling – paints an even more ominous picture. And yet, Kristian’s boss refuses to make a big fuss, what with tourist season in full swing.

“Don’t worry; go pack,” the man tells Kristian. “The mountain is fine.”

From there, the plot is fairly familiar. Once the mountain begins crashing down, Kristian and Idun are on opposite sides of town, each with one of their kids. They know they have 10 minutes to make it into the hills, so the race against the clock begins. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal much more, so let’s just say that the story keeps the suspense sustained for a good long while after the wave has hit.

The special effects are solid, no doubt helped by the dim lighting supplied mainly by car headlights and small blazes during the tsunami’s aftermath. And while some overwrought moments are inevitable, the movie proves to be quite emotional thanks to the smart decision by screenwriters John Kare Raake and Harald Rosenlow-Eeg to keep a tight focus on the family of four.

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Usually disaster movies tend to delight in destruction; there’s an almost pornographic feel to all those buildings being leveled and bridges getting washed away. “The Wave” has none of that. The human scale of this story about a very real threat to one Norwegian village makes the movie more tragic and also more chilling.

Two and a half stars. Rated R. Contains strong language and images of widespread death and destruction. In Norwegian with subtitles. 104 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.