By far the most interesting thing about Roar Uthaug's The Wave is the fact that it's only being considered art house fare because it's a foreign film with subtitles. After all, we all know that if a movie isn't in English, it's weightier, that it requires audiences to read subtitles is also a cultural plus. Right? Well, no, but this line of thinking plays to a certain innate sense of cultural inferiority — and it has done so for about as long as there have been movies.
The thing is that most of the time, we only get the more toffe-nosed titles from foreign shores. Norway's The Wave is more of a meat-and-potatoes thing, that's to say it's a mainstream movie whose actors just so happen to speak Norwegian. It is, in fact, a disaster picture. Think The Impossible (2012) by way of Jaws (1975), but set in a rural tourist spot on a fjord in Norway, and the source of the tsunami is a crumbling mountain. Yeah, it's an old Irwin Allen movie with subtitles, and I don't mean that as a negative.
As a story, The Wave is pretty hoary stuff. It's the old saw about the One Person who is certain something awful is going to happen, but no one will listen to him. In other words, this dates back at least to Jimmy Stewart being sure the tail is going to drop off a commercial airliner and cause a crash in No Highway in the Sky (1951). Here we have a geologist, Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), who keeps track of seismic shenanigans above a fjord. But just as he's about to take his leave — with his wife (Ane Dahl Torp) and kids (Edith Haagenrud-Sande and Jonas Hoff Oftebro) — he realizes something is wrong, something is about to happen. But there's a problem. It might be faulty readings, and this is a tourist town at the height of the season. No one is anxious to empty the town.
OK, this is predictable — but reasonably solid — material, but not so predictable is how well it works, or how much the setting helps it all to feel reasonably fresh. Director Uthaug manages to milk every ounce of tension out of the material. He makes the characters feel real, and he earns our sympathy. It's a pretty neat trick considering that there's not much in The Wave you haven't encountered over the years in one form or another. Just as astonishing is the way he and his crew make a roughly $7 million movie look like a Hollywood blockbuster. It's no wonder that The Wave has paved the way for Uthaug to make the leap to a genuine Hollywood production with Tomb Raider.
In the end, I think the biggest — and most pleasant — surprise is that it's an intelligent disaster picture. Oh, it hits almost every possible trope, but it does it with a degree of smarts, and it does it well. The Wave is being touted as Norway's first disaster movie. I doubt anyone is going to dispute that. Honestly, when you say Norwegian film, the only things that come to mind are a couple of quirky horror movies. This is definitely a higher class affair.