The Wave offers a humbling vision as an idyllic world turns deadly
Magnolia Pictures
March 3, 2016 6:22 AM EST

Big wave, Tiny Town: You could fit the premise of director 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 stone and placid fjord–tourists descend upon it every year, not thinking that even the smallest shift inside that rock of a mountain could trigger first a landslide and then a killer tsunami.

Kristian thinks about that possibility all the time, and for good reason: 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 geological blip, his colleagues at first think nothing of it. 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. Can they outrun the fjord of fury as it leaps onto land? Kristian and his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), a manager at the area’s biggest hotel, happen to be in separate parts of town when disaster strikes–they scramble to protect themselves and their two kids.

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. Through it all, Uthaug makes us care about this stalwart little family and, more important, serves up a special-effects deluge 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 is mostly 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.

–S.Z.

This appears in the March 14, 2016 issue of TIME.

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