Arts & Events

Grab your Life Vests: The Wave Roars onto the Big Screen

Gar Smith
Friday March 04, 2016 - 05:18:00 PM

Opens at the Landmark Shattuck on March 4

Norwegian film director Roar Uthaug knows what he's up to at every point in his new pulse-pounding disaster epic, The Wave. He delivers exactly what you would expect from a filmmaker whose name is "Roar."

Instead of invoking a fictitious plot device like an alien invasion or a mysterious plague, Uthaug focuses on a real-life mountain that looms over a popular real-life tourist village that sits in one of Norway's scenic fjords.

The problem is, Geiranger is situated in a watery cul de sac. If the mountainside collapses (and it's only a matter of time), the fjord is configured to act as a chute, channeling the surging water into a towering wall of water aimed directly at the town's shops and hotels. The Wave gives new meaning to the phrase "tourist trap."




The press screening at SF's Embarcadero Landmark multiplex was in a room that held fewer than 40 upholstered barcalounger-style seats. The screen was only 20-feet away from my row. It was a pretty intense setting for a film like The Wave

My first question, as I settled in, was: "Can my seat cushion be used as a flotation device?" 

The Wave (Bolgen) begins with black-and-white documentary footage recording the aftermath of a 1934 landslide that triggered a 210-foot-high wall of water that obliterated the villages of Tafjord and Fjøra. This is followed by a modern-day aerial view of a mountain that towers over the fjord. The camera reveals a massive cleft running nearly 2,000 feet across along the rockface. It is an unforgettable visual "reference point" that sticks in the mind. 

When the camera returns to the scenic tourist town of Geiranger, every moment thereafter is subliminally framed in an aura of impending disaster. The picturesque village may be a sun-splashed paradise for the families who live there—and for the visitors who sail over to enjoy the scenery—but the audience feels the inescapable presence of that looming mountain. 

While Geiranger's small resident population hovers around 250, as many as 200 cruise ships bring more than 700,000 tourists to the region each year. The problem is, Geiranger is situated in a watery cul de sac. If the mountainside collapses, the fjord is configured to act as a chute, channeling the surging water into a towering wall of water aimed directly at the town's shops and hotels. The Wave gives new meaning to the phrase "tourist trap." 

Director Roar Uthaug knows what he's up to at every point in this production. (He delivers exactly what you would expect from a filmmaker whose name is "Roar.") 

Uthaug does not rely on a fictitious plot device like an alien invasion or a mysterious plague. Instead, it's a real-life mountain, standing right there in plain view. Somehow, this makes the threat seem even more frightening. 

One of the town's residents is a local geologist named Kristian (Kristoffer Joner). He may not be able to tell a spanner from a plumber's wrench, but he does seem to share the audience's uneasy sense that "something may be happening" in the rocky depths of Akerneset. (In fact, the crack currently is growing at a rate of 1-4 inches a year.) Whenever Kristian stops and turns towards the mountain, it's as if he can hear something that not even the government's seismic stations can pick up. 

Kristian's wife, Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), is the practical one. She not only cares for her two kids but also fixes broken plumbing (a skill that will prove useful before The Wave has run its course). Idrun is the co-hero of this film. When the worst happens, she becomes the problem-solver and demonstrates that, when it comes to saving her children, she's even prepared to kill. 

The plot is laid out for maximum effect. The four members of Kristian's family become increasingly separated from one another as the apocalypse approaches. Even if they do survive the coming flood, the questions remain: how will they ever be able to reunite? 

Many critical scenes take place inside a real government seismic station built on the mountainside. This is where Kristian and his colleagues spend their days monitoring the condition of the mountain in a NASA-style control room filled with large screens displaying data-streams from hundreds of sensors implanted in Akerneset's rocky ribs. It's usually dull work but even when "strange things" begin to register on the screens, the jaded watchdogs shrug it off and attribute the problem to the sensors, not to the summit. (The audience, of course, knows better.) 

Even when all hell breaks loose and the screens begin to ignite with red warnings, the guardians of Geiranger hesitate to push the button that triggers the area-wide evacuation alarm. After all, it's the tourist season and "What if it turns out to be a false alarm?" 

Of course, this it's the real shebang and Uthanug delivers a presentation that is as every bit as devastating as an invasion from Mars. Cliffs shiver into rubble. Boulders smash and churn the river into leaping towers of demonic power. The long-predicted flood begins to pour down the fjord's confined canyons, rising higher with each turn of the river. 

The alarm gives everyone a ten-minute warning. But ten minutes is not a realistic time-frame for evacuating a village—especially when there is only a single two-lane highway out of town. As the water closes in, your mind may start asking desperate questions: Why isn't there a series of helipads for quick aerial evacuations to higher ground? Could people have found refuge strapped inside strong, metallic "survival pods" that would eventually bob to the surface? 

The Wave shows us how the "evacuation plan" for a multistory hotel on the waterfront works out. It involves hotel staff racing frantically from floor to floor, knocking on doors and urging sleeping tourists to leave everything behind and scramble onto a bus. (In this case, a single bus capable of carrying, at best, 60 passengers.) 

The resulting flood is Biblical—but there's no parting these waters. Hundreds of people are caught outside, running for their lives. Most will not make it. The CGI effects are heart-stopping. 

After the flood dissipates, the landscape is rendered unrecognizable. Crushed and twisted cars lie atop collapsed buildings amidst pools of water lit by guttering fires and electrical sparks. Images of bodies floating facedown in pools are reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

And the drama isn't over. A few survivors remain trapped in a horrific situation and time is not on their side. In these final-reel scenes, it's clear that the actors did not have an easy time of it. I felt myself holding my breath during some of the desperate underwater sequences. At another point, I found myself involuntarily pumping my arms against my legs as someone on the screen tried unsuccessfully to apply artificial resuscitation. 

It would be unfair to reveal who survives and who doesn't but the experience is guaranteed to have audiences staggering out of the theater happy to be alive. 

The final scene—an overview of an emergency center on a road high above the fjord—slowly opens up to show the landscape far below. For as far as the eye can see, the valley has been ripped apart by the force of the rampaging waters. The scale of the devastation is incredible to behold. 

Afterwards, I found myself in the theater lobby discussing the film with a small crowd of filmgoers. One of my fellow spectators was Hilde Skorpen, a personable cineaste who turned out to be the Consul General of the Norwegian Consulate in San Francisco.  

Given the proven dangers, I asked Skorpen about the Norwegian government's decision to spend enormous amounts of money on an extensive early-warning system to continuously monitor the mountain. "Wouldn't it make more sense to simply abandon the town before the cliffs collapse?" 

Our group discussion quickly came face-to-face with a familiar human reality: It is hard to motivate people to think long-term and "leave their comfort zones." Humans have a hard time planning for the "long term." 

Skorpen mentioned other places on Earth facing similar threats, including the Canary Islands. If the Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma island were to suffer a "flank collapse," some predict if could generate a mega-tsunami that could slam the eastern seaboard of the US with a wave traveling at supersonic speeds and measuring 165 feet from trough to crest. (The scientific community is divided on this. Geologist Dr. George Pararas-Carayannis believes "the threat of mega-tsunami generation from collapses of oceanic island stratovolcanoes has been greatly overstated.") 

Another looming threat is posed by the Cascadian Subduction Zone, a fault that lies buried beneath the ocean off the coast of Washington State. In 1701, this rift triggered the largest quake ever known to have hit the Pacific Northwest. The fault, which is overdue for another massive shake, could devastate Seattle with a magaquake ranging between 8.7 and 9.2. The resulting flood zone would cover 140,000 square miles and the initial death toll could reach 13,000. (The odds of a major quake unlocking the Cascadian rift within the next 50 years are currently one-in-three.) 

It quickly dawned on me that I was in no position to critique the Norwegians. After all, I'm part of a large population that continues to live in cities built atop a killer earthquake zone. 

Watching hundreds of desperate residents and tourists trying to escape The Wave and evacuate a village in a few desperate minutes, gave rise to a thought: What would it look like if the Bay Area were to undertake a proactive tsunami "evacuation drill"? How would it work? 

Let's say State and local governments would give Bay Area residents several days of advanced notice (something not available in a real seismic event). Then, at a certain pre-announced time on a certain appointed date, alarms would sound and everyone would attempt to evacuate their low-lying homes and businesses in advance of a theoretical flood. 

I wonder how that would turn out. 

Postscript: The Wave is one of four Norwegian films set to screen at Cinequest, the Silicon Valley film festival (March 1-13 in San Jose). The other three are Returning Home, Staying Alive and Women in Oversized Men's Shirts