John Andreas Andersen’s The Quake, a sequel to the excellent 2015 Norwegian disaster film The Wave, should be required viewing for all of today’s Hollywood franchise jockeys. It shows you how to make one of these things without sacrificing your characters’ souls (or your own, for that matter).
In the earlier movie, the entire side of a mountain spectacularly collapsed into a fjord, setting off a massive, 250-foot tsunami that consumed the small picturesque town of Geiranger. When The Quake starts, the geologist who tried to warn everybody at the time, Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner), is now being hailed as a national hero — but even before he opens his mouth, we know that he’s still traumatized by the event, and by all the lives he couldn’t save. As we watch him prepare for a TV interview, our view is obstructed by a giant screen showing images of the devastation; he regularly seems dwarfed by everything around him, as if he might be losing his sense of self.
He is certainly losing his family, whom he tried so hard to save in the first picture. He’s separated from his wife Ilbe (Ane Dahl Torp), who has moved to Oslo with the kids, and Kristian can’t even seem to spend a few days alone just being a dad to his young daughter Julia. Back at home, he has a room filled with photographs of the missing and the dead. What could have been a minor character note in a studio film becomes a defining force here, a kind of paralyzing obsession. To put it another way: Kristian feels like a real person, responding to real things.
His unsettled psyche drives the narrative in other ways, too. When he discovers that a geologist colleague has died while investigating a mysterious incident in a highway tunnel outside Oslo, he begins to suspect that something’s imminent. But nobody wants to believe him — not the government scientists monitoring seismic activity around the country with their newfangled machines, not even his family. Kristian might be the hero who saved thousands of lives, but he’s also the poor loser who can’t let go of his trauma and is therefore suspect.
By the time the earthquake hits Oslo — and it is a truly impressive one, laying waste to everything in its path, taking out entire skyscrapers like they were discarded paper lanterns — Kristian has taken matters into his own hands, attempting to save his family, who are scattered all around town. This was pretty much the template for The Wave, too. As was the fact that, despite Kristian’s actions, things went spiraling out of control in all sorts of new, unforeseen ways. It’s both agonizing and invigorating to watch, a spectacle that is awesome and awful in equal measure.
For all the sensitivity with which its characters have been drawn, The Quake has been conceived (by screenwriters John Kåre Raake and Harald Rosenløw-Eeg, who also wrote The Wave) with all the delirious, what-if imagination of an intricate engineering experiment. Much of the action in the film’s second half takes place in the topmost section of a Radisson Blu which has been left teetering precariously after another falling building took out much of what’s below. And each tilt, each crack, each secondary collapse feels like it has been thought through in all its geometric and physical implications — which just makes everything that much more nerve-racking. (In its broad strokes, this setpiece recalls a key one from Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and even though that’s one of the better Transformers entries, The Quake’s variation feels so much more honest, detailed, and, yes, exciting.)
If anything, The Quake might be a little too good. The Wave had a certain far-fetched romanticism that reminded us in its final act that we were, after all, watching a movie, with all the unlikely but welcome developments that come with such a thing: families reunited, remnants of communities restored, and so on. The destruction in The Quake is more total, more hopeless, and more convincing. And without giving too much away, let’s just say that by the time it fades out, we’re not at all convinced that things will ever be okay again. I can’t wait for the sequel.