High Water Mark

I do enjoy a well-done disaster flick, not to be confused with a flick that’s a disaster. Historically this genre is the province of Hollywood, with studios laying out big bucks for special effects, but the digital revolution has broken borders. Some of the premier SFX houses are spread around the globe, like Weta Workshop in New Zealand. A great example of disaster films breaking out of Hollywood is 2015’s The Wave, which is now available on Netflix.

Just as American films focus on possible disasters in the United States like the recent San Andreas (earthquakes) and Into the Storm (tornadoes), this Norwegian film deals with a disaster on the home front – in this case a massive landslide into a narrow fjord that sets off a mammoth tsunami. Indeed, the film opens by citing earlier instances of this taking place. It then focuses on the town of Geiranger, nestled at the end of a fjord, that will have ten minutes to evacuate if a cliff-face down the fjord lets go and crashes into the water. In this, the film is factually correct, and the director was guided by the actual geology of an event that will happen. The only question is when.

Geologist Kristian (Kristoffer Joner) has been working at a station that monitors the mountainsides, but he’s now taken a job with an oil exploration company and his family is preparing to move. When he returns from a preparatory trip to their new apartment in Oslo, he finds his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) fixing the sink while their teenaged son Sondre (Jonas Hoff Oftebro) and younger daughter Julia (Edith Haagenrud-Sande) watching. Over dinner Kristian explains the technologically advanced apartment they’ll have when they move, though Idun says she will miss the soul of their older house.

The next day, Kristian goes in for a final time to the Early Warning Center, located over 100 meters above sea level. There’s a particularly unstable section that they are monitoring remotely with both sensors and video. While he’s there a warning goes off about a drop in ground water levels, but when they check the video and the other monitors everything seems fine. The next day Kristian is leaving town with Sondre and Julia, while Idun has a last day at the hotel she manages in Geiranger and will follow later. He suddenly makes a connection with what caused the change in levels and why the monitors didn’t register a problem, so he turns around and heads to the Early Warning Center.

Oftentimes Hollywood disaster films begin with a bang to get the adrenalin pumping and to foreshadow the larger thrills to come. For example, with the two movies cited above, San Andreas begins with a white-knuckle helicopter rescue while Into The Storm has a nearly invisible night-time tornado take out a car with four students in it. The Wave does a slower build, focusing on the family and people they know, so we become close to these characters. They’re completely real, not the larger than life heroic types that often populate this genre. The term “disaster flick” inherently gives away some of the plot – bad things will happen – but the films usually split into two sub-categories: 1) the focus is on the disaster, or 2) the movie is a drama that happens to include a disaster. The Wave is firmly in the second sub-category.

Director Roar Uthaug has worked only in his native Norway, though that will be changing. He’s been tapped to helm the new Tomb Raider film due in 2018 that will star Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. The Wave only had a limited release in the US, common for a non-English film, but in Norway it sold over 800,000 tickets. Considering Norway has a population of around 5 million, that’s the equivalent of 1 in 6 people in the country seeing the film. That’s akin to a US movie having a domestic box office of approximately $500 million – about the domestic gross of The Dark Knight, which is 6th on the all-time domestic box office list.

Where many disaster movies feel over-bloated and usually have a running time in excess of two hours, The Wave is a lean 105 minutes. In the midst of the destruction – and the effects are stunning – it doesn’t lose sight of the human level. If you like this genre and have Netflix (or find it on another streaming service) I highly recommend you check out this film. It is well worth the viewing.

Advertisements

Plot Twists

It may seem unbelievable these days, but footage of actual tornados was almost non-existent back as late as the 1980s. Then video equipment got smaller and portable so storm chasers could record tornados while they were on the ground. With the digital revolution, now there might be dozens of shots of one storm. Digital technology also changed how twisters appeared in motion pictures. The tornado in The Wizard of Oz was created by filming a thirty-five foot long muslin sock, similar to the wind socks you find at airports. In 1996, computer graphics were used for the second major movie involving tornados, Twister. However, quite a few scenes were still filmed with old-fashion effects, like the truck driving through the rolling house. The two formats didn’t blended well, since there were the dark CGI storms and then bright sunshine in the next shot, like when Bill Pullman and Helen Hunt dodged combines dropping from the sky. Now, 18 years later, comes the next major film dealing with tornados, Into The Storm.

The movie is set up as a “found footage” film, similar to Chronicle or the grandfather of the genre, The Blair Witch Project. Here, though, director Steven Quale gives a nod to our digital society in that there are so many cameras involved that every angle is covered. (He does sneak in a shot or two that couldn’t have been caught by someone’s camera, but the pace of the movie is such you won’t notice until after it’s over.) Most effective are scenes purporting to be surveillance video. With the absence of sound, they look like they’ve been culled from YouTube rather than filmed specifically for the movie.

As with most disaster movies, the main focus is the action, and the plot revolves around it, rather than the action illustrating the plot. Into The Storm features three main threads. The central one deals with Gary Fuller (Richard Armitage), the vice-principal of the Silverton, Oklahoma, high school, and his two sons Donnie (Max Deacon) and Trey (Nathan Kress). Both Donnie and Trey help Gary with AV projects for the school, including the current one of interviews for a 25-year video time capsule. Donnie is infatuated with Kaitlyn (Alycia Debnam Carey), and when she’s in need of help with a video, Donnie cuts out on the school’s graduation ceremony, leaving Trey to record the event.

Of matching importance is the plot thread involving storm chasing Team Titus, who pursue storms in a tank-like vehicle while a van outfitted with computerized weather gear provides support. After a year with no results, Pete (Matt Walsh), the team leader, finds his funding has just been cut. But he sees a chance to re-establish it when a huge storm front comes into the area. His meteorologist, Allison (Sarah Wayne Callies), points him toward Silverton, even though he wants to go to another town. When that other town is hit, Pete explodes at Allison, but he’s interrupted by a thunderstorm with golf-ball size hail. In the van they discover the storm has reestablished itself and is heading directly toward Silverton.

As comic relief – and this film is intense enough that comic relief is a requirement – there is self-styled YouTube stuntman Donk (Kyle Davis) and his i-Phone cameraman Reevis (Jon Reep). When they see Team Titus drive by, they’re inspired in their half-functioning brains to become storm chasers themselves. They paint a sign on the side of their pickup truck, grab their cameras, and head off after Team Titus.

After a brief preface that establishes the found footage premise – and gives a major jolt of adrenalin – Director Quale takes a while to establish the stories. Once the storm hits, though, the pace of the movie shoots into high gear. Quale had served as second unit director for both Titanic and Avatar, before his first chance to direct with the 5th installment of the Final Destination series. This is his sophomore effort, and it’s clear he’s a good student. Twister was a bit pretentious, with its script by Michael Crichton, director Jan de Bont coming off his triumph with Speed, and Steven Spielberg as executive producer. In contrast Into The Storm is a lean 89 minutes (24 minutes shorter than Twister) and was made for half the earlier film’s budget. Yet visually it puts Twister to shame. Granted, neither will be singled out as great examples of film as high art, but Into The Storm is a very effective B-movie.

I would give a word of caution to anyone who has dealt with the aftermath of an actual tornado. This film may be too emotionally impacting, and could bring back horrible memories. It probably won’t do any business in Joplin, MO. On the other hand, it does reflect a new reality in our relationship to the weather. “It seems like once-in-a-century storms are now happening every year,” Allison says early in the film. While it aims for thrills, Into The Storm may also be prescient.