Big wave, tiny town. You could fit the premise of Roar Uthaug’s modest but effective disaster film The Wave into half a nutshell. The movie, too, is dexterous and economical, a lo-fi approximation of a Hollywood blockbuster—not a drop of CGI water is wasted. The Wave has been called Norway’s first disaster movie, and even though the story takes place in a small country, the stakes are high: Kristian (Kristoffer Joner, resembling a gaunt, intense Kevin Bacon) is a geologist in charge of monitoring a mountain near his serene burg. That town, Geiranger, boasts a glorious vista of rugged rock and placid fjord—tourists descend upon it every year, devil-may-care in their windbreakers and sneakered feet, not thinking too much that if there should be just an infinitesimal shift inside that rock of a mountain, the ensuing rockslide could churn up a killer tsuami.
Kristian, of course, thinks about that possibility all the time. His wife, Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), one of those long-legged, no-makeup beauties that seem to spring up around fjord country like mutant wildflowers, even teases him about it: Kristian has taken an oil-company job and is about to move his family (which also includes teenage skateboarding son Sondre and precociously cute grade-school-age daughter Julia) to the big city, where, Idun suggests, there will be fewer mountains to distract him from her charms.
Still, the fabulousness of his wife aside, Kristian has reason to worry: In real life, Norwegian tidal waves in 1905 and 1936 swept farms and homes off the map and, combined, killed more than 100 people. (A repeat of these horrors is not just possible but likely, as The Wave warns us ominously in both a preamble and a coda.) When Kristian notices a weird geological blip, his colleagues at first think wave it off. But before long, that mountain decides its center cannot hold: With a silent, mighty groan, it sends a tumble of rocks into the water below. The town’s citizens have been warned, but perhaps not in time. Can they outrun the fjord of fury as it leaps onto land? Kristian and Idun, a manager at the area’s biggest hotel, happen to be in separate parts of town when disaster hits—they scramble to protect themselves, and their family.
The family-in-peril motif is a disaster-film staple, but don’t hold that against The Wave: Uthaug isn’t trying to buck convention, he’s just embroidering over it, on a small scale that ends up feeling surprisingly expansive. He’s hip to every cliche, including the innocent human who stands dumbstruck in the face of immediate danger and the selfish, cowardly whiner who meets a bad end. (And oh, what an end!) But through it all, Uthaug makes us care about this stalwart little family, and, more important, serves up a special-effects tsunami that’s both glorious and unsettling, a swoosh of doom in liquid form. Disaster movies are beloved by many, for reasons that aren’t always savory or defensible: There’s something both humbling and sadistic about watching terrified humans running this way and that, desperate to outrun the oncoming big Whatever. But The Wave, with the exception of a few overwrought moments, is low on sadism and high on humbling. We’re all at the mercy of nature’s power. It’s the Whatever we can never outrun.