Foreign-Language Oscar Spotlight: Norway's Disaster Epic 'The Wave'

The Wave - H 2015
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Director Roar Uthaug discusses making his country's first-ever disaster movie.

Norway's entry for the 2016 foreign-language Oscar race stands apart as one of the few pieces of pure popcorn entertainment amid the Holocaust dramas, period epics and ethnological portraits that, as in every year, dominate the field of contenders.

Directed by the wonderfully named Roar Uthaug, The Wave is a Spielbergian-style disaster movie, with a visual style and Hollywood feel that belies its $6 million budget.

The story is quickly told: A tiny Norwegian village is threatened when a huge mass of rock tumbles into a fjord, setting off a tsunami. The villagers have 10 minutes to escape to the mountains before the wave engulfs them. Our hero is a geologist who had predicted just such a catastrophe and now has to race against time to save his family.

“I've always been a fan of disaster movies — Twister, Armageddon — but we'd never made a movie like this in Norway before,” Uthaug says. “The challenge was to combine the elements of the American genre movie with the reality of the situation in Norway.”

Incredible as it sounds, The Wave is actually based on science. A similar rock-slide Tsunami devastated a Norwegian town in 1934, killing 40 people. Geologists believe it is only a matter of time before the country suffers another such disaster.

“In Norway we are a very rich country, and socially a very safe place. The government takes care of everyone,” say Uthaug. “But we still live with the stress of nature all around us. That's a big part of the narrative, that the spirit of nature, the land itself, is a threat.”

The Wave has a few, SFX-heavy set pieces, but the film's strength lies in its low-tech approach, using Bourne-style hand-held cameras and nervous editing to create nail-biting suspense. The Norwegian actors all performed their own stunts, something the director said was “utterly nervewracking.”

For a climatic scene, in which he tries to rescue his family from a flooded hotel, lead Kristoffer Joner trained with freediving instructors to be able to hold his breath for three minutes underwater.

“They loved it, but I was terrified something would go wrong,” says Uthaug.

The sense of realism elevates The Wave above normal genre fare and may explain its huge success at home, where it has sold some 800,000 tickets in Norway, a country of just 5 million people.

“Traditionally, the film industry in Norway has been more art-house orientated,” says Uthaug. “But there's a new generation who, like me, grew up in the 1980s watching American movies like Indiana Jones and Back to the Future, and loving them. Those are the kind of movies I love to go to the cinema to see and those are the kind I want to make. Like a lot of Norwegian directors right now, I'm not afraid to entertain the audience.”