Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Wave (Bolgen)

The Wave is a Norwegian disaster movie directed by Roar Uthaug.  Made in 2015, the movie concerns a danger that is, apparently, ubiquitous among the fjords in Norway -- this is the risk of rock falls and landslides into sea water creating massive tsunami waves in the narrow gorges of the fjords.  According to the film, Norwegian geologists monitor over 300 sites where the edges of mountains are unstable and pose the risk of dropping hundred of tons of rock into the fjords. 

The plot of The Wave is exceptionally schematic, direct, and unembellished.  A Norwegian geologist leads a crew of a  half-dozen scientists monitoring a huge cleft mountain at the head the Geiringer fjord.  A dozen miles down the fjord from the unstable cliff face, the tourist town of Geiringer is located.  There is a car ferry at the town that take the people living in that place to highways that ultimately reach Stavanger.  With bare efficiency, the film establishes that the geologist, Kristian, has reason to suspect that the mountain side is about to detach and plunge a thousand feet into the fjord.  Kristian has accepted a job in the oil industry and he plans to leave town the next morning to take a better paid position in private industry in Stavanger.  Kristian's wife, Idun, is hyper-competent -- we first see her fixing a sink in a spray of water -- the couple have two children, a teenage boy, Sondre, and a four-year old girl named Julia.  On the morning that he is supposed to leave town, Kristian has an epiphany that convinces him that the mountain side is about to collapse -- groundwater monitored by the elaborate array of sensors on the mountain has suddenly vanished, there are seismic rumblings, and birds seem to be migrating en masse away from the head of the fjord.  (What's about to happen seems obvious -- but we have the benefit of the film's title.)  Kristian goes by helicopter to the crevasse in the cleft mountain, descends into it, and looks for evidence of the impending collapse.  The crevasse is a scary place and seems unstable.  Kristian returns to Geiringer and his enraged wife -- he was supposed to have driven to Stavanger on that day with the children.  The kids check into the picturesque tourist hotel that Indrun manages and Kristian, who is sentimental about the house they have just vacated, goes back up the valley to spend one last night in their rental home with his small daughter Julia.  Everything is now in place for the catastrophe that the film has been setting up for the first half of its 90 minute length.

The mountain falls into the fjord.  An 80 meter wave blasts out of the fjord where it is hit by the landslide.  The town of Geiringer has ten minutes to evacuate before the towering and monstrous wave reaches it.  Uthaug establishes suspense along two axes -- the people fleeing the town up narrow vehicle-packed roads have ten minutes to get to a height of 80 meters above the fjord.  Thus Uthaug can use both time and space as elements fraught with peril.  Kristian, separated from his wife who  is at the hotel, makes the anguished decision to flee up the mountain with Julia -- he has to get 80 meters above the fjord however to be safe and the traffic jam on the road stalls him.  When he tries to run up the hill in the dark with Julia, a car that is left in-gear rolls back and pins a woman to a guardrail.  Kristian hands his daughter to a neighbor and struggles to save the trapped woman.  He gets her loose but, then, the mountainous wave strikes him -- he's only at 58 meters above sea-level.  Back in the town, Udrun can't find her teenage son -- he's skateboarding in the basement hallways of the hotel.  She puts all the guests on a bus but with two other people stays at the hotel looking for her son.

The film is intensely frightening and its first hour is a model for how to build suspense.  The director uses Steadi-cam in the hallways of the hotel, creating dread that comes from our memory of this device being applied to the Outlook Hotel in Kubrick's  very scary The Shining.  The soundtrack is ominous and the scenes in the crevasse as the side of the mountain slowly slips loose and, then, plunges violently into the fjord a thousand feet below are spectacularly eerie and terrifying.  The problem with this kind of film is that if the director is honest, the outcome of the catastrophe will be too terrible to bear.  Some things are simply too grim to be fodder for a commercial film.  Uthaug is generally true to his concept and I found the last part of the film depressingly suspenseful -- that is, suspenseful but not entertaining.  Of course, almost everyone is killed and there are corpses all over.  Sondre and Idrun are trapped in a small underground bomb-shelter in the hotel -- the shelter fills with water and they can't escape.  At this point the film exploits both our fear of drowning and our fear of being buried alive -- it's a double-whammy and this was just about more than I could bear.  Indeed, one scene in which a panicked man starts dragging Sondre and Idrun under the icy black water in a tiny closed space, only about the size of a desk drawer was simply too unpleasant for me to watch.  The film operates on two scales -- there is the sublime, majestic, and horrifying spectacle of the wave roaring down the narrow, towering fjord followed by the claustrophobic, premature burial in a coffin flooded with cold water climax in the hotel.  This climax is intercut with shots of Kristian coming to the rescue -- a sequence that includes his discovery of the corpse-filled and drowned bus.  Some aspects of the film's last 20 minutes seem highly problematic from a realistic point of view -- the characters are immersed in fjord water for a long time (in real life, I would expect them to die of hypothermia within five minutes but these are Norwegians and, perhaps, they are particularly tough).  The ruins are strewn with hundreds of picturesque little fires -- this provides light but I have no idea what fuel is causing these fires to burn.  They seem placed merely to provide atmospheric smoke and light.  (The movie was shot on location in a spectacular Norwegian fjord and, then, the studio imagery -- most of the last twenty minutes -- is filmed on what must be a very large sound-stage in Romania).  The movie is worthwhile if you like this kind of stuff, but I thought that post-wave climax was too dire to be entertaining.  And a film like this has no place to go -- it just ends with horror and a title that some other crevasse in Norway is about to expand to kick a mountain into the water.  (In Wim Wenders film, a characters says "the Yanks have occupied our subconscious."  This seems true when it comes to curse words in Norway.  When the huge wave approaches, the hero cries out:  "Oh fuck me!  Jesus!" When you hit your  hand with a hammer in Norway, you shout:  "Shit!"  At one point, the subtitle tells us that Kristian is saying "I screwed up" but the character actually tells his wife:  "I fucked up.")

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