You may remember Dennis Gansel’s The Wave (Die Welle), a fictionalised take on The Third Wave, which saw a group of high school students established their own fascist dictatorship as part of a social experiment.
A complex study of the evil that can occur as a result of social pressure and groupthink, it missed out on Germany’s 2008 submission for Best Foreign Language to The Baader Meinhof Complex. The Wave (Bølgen), Norway’s submission for this year’s Oscars, has one fewer social experiments and one more giant, giant wall of water. Which is not to say that Roar Uthaug’s film hasn’t go anything going got it; just nothing that seems likely to distinguish it to the Academy.
Our topic here is the Eikford family who live in the picturesque tourist village of Gerainger — but not for long. On the final day before his move to a big-city job in the oil industry, geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) is bidding farewell to his colleagues and worrying over some anomalous readings from the neighboring mountain, Åkerneset. A major landslide would generate a tsunami that could flood the settlement, which lies nestled in the basin of a fjord.
He also, though, has to make time for his hotel worker wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), skateboarding teenage son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro), and winsome daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande).
The first half of The Wave feels like more than just setup for the inevitable destruction. As scripted by John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg, it’s a low-key, self-contained family drama with an understated central dynamic.
Kristian seems like a dutiful family man but he’s obsessed with his work, with the falling water table and reading of contractions in the Åkernes crevasse. His bucolic boss, Arvid Øvrebø (Fridtjov Såheim), almost seems glad to see him go — he certainly seems adverse to hitting that big red panic button. By the time it is pressed a 250-foot wall of black, foamy death has already gone charging down the fjord like the hoof-beats of Poseidon.
Things pretty much go downhill from there. Having already gone uphill first, John Christian Rosenlund’s widescreen cinematography offers us the film’s last visually interesting sequence amidst the light and chaos of an upturned car. After that the crisp blue, grass-skirted vistas of the Geirangerfjorden are only so much mud and wreckage.
As one family member searches for others through vehicles littered with the less fortunate, a somewhat contrived late-night expedition strands two of the Eikford brood in an underground vault with paranoid dunker Phillip (Thomas Bo Larsen ). The film leaves itself nowhere to go except the obvious.
While the inevitable resuscitation scene keeps you guessing, The Wave avoids the downer ending that would, at least, set it apart from other family-centric disaster flicks. A Scandinavian The Impossible, nearly all the film’s pleasure lies in the slow build of tension over the course of fifty-or-so minutes, wondering exactly when the mountain will crumble — during the descent into the crevasse, or perhaps Kristian and Julia’s sleepover at the empty family home?
As Arvid says, “Once mountain gets ahold of you it never lets go”, and that’s certainly true of the crystalline beauty on display here — it’s just a shame Åkerneset couldn’t have held itself together a bit longer.