There must be something in the water at The New Yorker. The Richard Brooks film In Cold Blood was based off of Truman Capote’s 1965 New Yorker story of the same name. The Spike Jonze film Adaptation was based off of Susan Orleans’ 1995 New Yorker story “Orchid Fever”. And Roar Uthaug’s 2015 film The Wave was based off of Kathryn Schulz’s 2015 New Yorker story “The Really Big One”.
That last one isn’t technically true, but it might as well be. The same mixture of science, dread, and sense of looming catastrophe I felt while reading Schulz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story on the mass destruction that awaits the Pacific Northwest’s Cascadia subduction zone reemerged from the very beginning of The Wave, which is set in the real Norwegian tourist village of Geiranger. The town is at constant risk of annihilation when—not if—a rock slide tumbles into the fjord and triggers a devastating tsunami.
With this inevitability hovering over the town, a geologist named Kristian prepares to move with his family to a bigger city to start a new job in the oil industry. But when an anomaly in the town’s tectonic monitoring system stirs in Kristian an ineffable sense of doom, he can’t shake the feeling The Big One is coming. He already left his job, but it won’t let go of him.
We know from the movie’s title and poster that The Wave is coming, but no one else does, and that makes watching each character’s oblivious actions, pauses, and second guesses unbearably tense. The potency of this foreboding is the forte of the film, especially the first act. It grafts the fear of the unseen menace of Jaws onto a much larger and elemental force that cannot be fought or killed, only feared and fled from. This makes it similar in tone and story to the 2012 film The Impossible, which dramatized the true story of a family scattered by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But unlike The Impossible, which had the surprise tsunami happen early on and then focused on the family reuniting, the tsunami in The Wave takes its sweet, torturous time arriving.
That choice makes it a stronger film, though the search-and-rescue of the second act I think diffuses some, but not all, of the tension that had built throughout the first half. In that way it felt like two different movies, with more of the conventional story/character beats big-budget disaster films tend to revert to happening after the tsunami hits. Yet, for being made for a paltry $6.5 million, the film is no shoddy disaster flick. The visual effects turn the tsunami into a monstrous, atavistic brute force of nature. And the cast—especially the parents played by Ane Dahl Torp and Kristoffer Joner—render a compelling human drama in how they react to the tectonic terror and try to survive in its hellish wake.
I checked to see which other Scandinavian films I’ve seen and found several great ones: The Hunt and Oslo, August 31 both made my Best Films lists for their years, and Troll Hunter was strange but interesting. These modern films plus the extensive filmography of Ingmar Bergman means there’s lots out there to discover. I’m happy to add The Wave to that list.