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March 4, 2016

American disaster movies always seem to push bigger and bigger. Last year’s San Andreas took out half of coastal California, and yet none of the CGI spectacle really seemed to matter. Paradoxically, the bigger they get, the more cartoonish they seem. SyFy has even turned this into a business model, making these sorts of movies specifically as self-aware jokes.

For real staying power, a disaster movie has to be smaller, like Bølgen — subtitled in English as The Wave. Even a small Norwegian tourist town is enough for us to worry about, and putting all the focus on one place helps us empathize with the terror of those people caught in nature’s path.

Specifically, it’s the town of Geiranger, located at the tip of a fjord in Western Norway. These may look like rivers, but they’re actually long, winding arms of the ocean reaching into the mountainous coastline. And those mountains aren’t always stable. Geologists monitor a huge cliff face further down the fjord, which may some day give way in a rockslide. The whole side of the mountain will come crashing down into the water, which makes quite a splash. And unlike a tsunami in the open ocean, there is nowhere for this wave to go but rocketing along the fjord, every bit as intense as where it started, until ten minutes later, when an 80-meter wall of water slams into the village built at the water’s edge.

Director Roar Uthaug drew inspiration from Hollywood disasters like Twister, and obviously the most spectacular scenes are packed with computer-generated elements. But screenwriters John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg show a clear influence from even older greats, like Jaws. And indeed, it’s hard not to think about Chief Brody squaring off against Mayor Vaughn when geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) finds his cautious urgings overruled by his colleague Arvid’s (Fridtjov Såheim) considerations about the town’s tourist season.

Kristian and his family are naturally the focus of the story; even if we’re just dealing with a small town we need particular people to bring the impact of the disaster down to human scale. The movie does a nice job of splitting them all up so there will be a struggle after the wave hits. They’re supposed to be moving out, so Kristian and his daughter are in the empty house she wants to spend one last night in. Meanwhile his wife, Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) is working in the tourist hotel, and their son is in one of the rooms. Or he would be if he weren’t practicing his skateboard moves in the basement, with headphones on so he can’t hear when the alarms go off.

There’s nothing in Bølgen that isn’t straightforward and sincere. This isn’t a sly, winking subversion that congratulates genre fans for recognizing standard tropes; it’s a full-throated celebration of those tropes that understands both why they exist and how they can work to make a disaster movie connect with an audience. And it does connect, resoundingly.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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