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The condemned: The Quake (2018)

The plot: When a movie is called The Quake, I think you pretty much know what you’re getting yourself into. The film follows Norwegian geologist Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner), who managed to help save a bunch of people three years ago when an 80-meter-tall tsunami—the result of an avalanche—struck the tourist destination town of Geiranger. (This all happens in a prior movie, called The Wave.) Unfortunately, the event gave him PTSD, isolating him emotionally and eventually resulting in his wife taking his two children and moving to Oslo. (We know he’s in a bad place when his 11-year-old daughter Julia comes for a visit and he can’t even bother to prepare for her stay, instead freaking out and sending her back home the very next day.)

After a colleague dies while researching a tunnel beneath Oslo, Kristian picks up his friend’s research and comes to believe that a massive earthquake is about to hit the capital. He tries to tell the authorities, to no avail. Even after a massive power outage strikes and a small, isolated tremble rips apart the Oslo Opera House (you know, a friendly little head’s up from the coming earthquake!), no one believes him. But after he apologizes to his wife Idun for missing Julia’s dance recital, she takes him back. The two reconcile, and she goes off to work in the morning—just in time for Kristian to realize the quake is about to hit. With Julia and his colleague’s adult daughter Marit in tow, he heads to the 41-story Radisson hotel where Idun works, and heads to the top floor to get her. Naturally, Julia follows Kristian up (and Marit, who was tasked with watching Julia, follows suit), so when the quake hits, Kristian and Idun have to survive long enough to get to Julia and get her to safety before the whole building collapses.

Over-the-top box copy: “The Wave was only the beginning,” reads the above-the-title copy. More on that in a moment. Beyond that, the film got good enough press it can let some pull quotes doing the hyping for it: “Insane with tension,” reads the cover quote from The Austin Chronicle, while the back gets “Effects that rewrite the book on how disaster play out on the big screen,” from Movie Nation. I might disagree slightly with both of those assessments.

The descent: That above-the-title box copy knows exactly why I, and probably a lot of other people, are here to watch. The Wave was a genuine cultural phenomenon in Norway, the rare disaster flick that actually got praised for being a legitimately good movie. And not just in Scandinavia (it was even submitted as Norway’s entry for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars, though it failed to garner a nomination): This very website favorably compared it to Titanic thanks to awesomely named director Roar Uthaug’s expert handling of people trying to avoid drowning in enclosed spaces while still expressing earnest emotions in an appealing manner. It did large-scale disaster on a small-scale budget, in a way that managed to sell the intensity of the premise and create real tension from the situation, balancing some Hollywood conventions with a darker Northern European sensibility. It even earned Uthaug, who also directed the entertaining 2006 slasher Cold Prey, the opportunity to helm last year’s Tomb Raider reboot, a gig which presumably didn’t go as well as he’d hoped.

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The theoretically heavenly talent: Taking over directing duties is John Andreas Anderson, a longtime cinematographer making his disaster-movie debut (this is only the second feature he’s helmed). But Joner and the rest of his celluloid family all reprise their roles from The Wave, ready to yelp in terror once more. Obviously, none of these people are known in America, but they’re all pretty good actors, which goes a long way in helping to sell this kind of spectacle. Still, the real draw here is the CGI earthquake. It should get its own credit.

The execution: As you might expect, The Quake is not as good of a disaster movie as The Wave. Critical acclaim for a disaster flick is rare, though, so we shouldn’t hold that against it. What we can hold against it, however, is making us wait 70 damn minutes—roughly 70 percent of its running time—before getting to the actual earthquake. There’s nothing wrong with setting the table; done well, it can even be enjoyable, as in this movie’s predecessor. But that movie knew why it existed, and didn’t wait long before arriving at the fireworks factory. Not only is the setup here a lot less enjoyable, it gets bogged down in the minutiae of the research, as though anyone gives a shit about building a case for the possibility of a coming earthquake. A few readouts from some seismographs, a couple of furrowed brows staring at data on a screen, and boom, you’ve got what you need to unleash a natural catastrophe.

But this movie wants you to know that Kristian hasn’t forgotten what happened last time. He is mopey and brooding—you know, the most fun kind of person to spend nearly an hour hanging out alongside. Here he is brutally rejecting a peace offering from Julia during her brief visit:

After he gets the envelope from his friend Konrad, outlinging his suspicions of the coming quake, Kristian shaves his beard, which is movie-speak for how you know he’s getting serious about getting back to work. After he heads to Oslo and meets Konrad’s daughter Marit, the oddest element of the film is how Kristian immediately starts dragging her around everywhere he goes, and she’s totally on board with it. Want to head back down into the very tunnels that killed Marit’s father? Let’s bring her along! She’s not a geologist or qualified in any way, but whatever. Kristian suspects danger at the Opera House? Get Marit to drive, she doesn’t mind dropping everything to play chauffeur! The best is that, after the pre-quake damages the Opera House and Kristian runs in to get Julia (she wisely hides under a thick oak table), he then spends another half hour or so tracking down the safety inspector responsible for monitoring seismic activity, debates the potential for the coming quake, and then storms out to go back to his wife’s apartment. In doing so, he just bypasses Marit, who has been patiently sitting in the car the entire time. She was waiting for him to return while he ambled about, and then when he gets back, without so much as an apology, is just like, “Oh, gotta go, maybe see you never?” At least leave her five stars, Kristian.

It’s especially silly to waste all this time with setup when so much of it it scientifically ludicrous. The character development is worthwhile, but only accounts for maybe a third of the rising action. The rest is given over to nonsense about how the seismic activity has been developing without anyone noticing, thanks to it only happening in areas where various construction projects have been blasting. Kristian looks at a screen earlier in the film, and yellow dots on the monitor mark where construction projects have generated tremors from blasting. It leads to him confronting public officials and sounding absolutely insane, like he does here:

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At last, after all the hemming and hawing—and that one lackluster tremble at the Opera House, which resulted in little more than some broken glass and people running while the camera shakes—we get to the big show. Hilariously, it turns out that literally nothing Kristian did in the first hour of the film matters. His warnings went unheeded, nobody changed their plans or altered their behavior in the slightest, including his own family, meaning it was all for naught. You could argue that’s irony, but really it feels like time poorly spent on our part. After Julia pulls a serious moron move and goes to the top of the hotel (knowing full well that the earthquake is coming and her dad is trying to get her mom out of the building at that very instant), the rumble begins, and finally—finally!—we get the good stuff. Too bad it doesn’t last very long.

As in The Wave, it’s really about the aftermath: Kristian and Idun are stuck in an elevator without power, while Marit and Julia are trapped on the top floor of the building. The fun really starts when Marit notices the building across from them isn’t looking too stable, and ends up smashing into the hotel, causing the top floor to break apart and dangle down at a rather worrying angle. If you’re wondering if they’re setting up a sliding-onto-the-window-and-watching-it-slowly-crack-beneath-them scenario straight out of Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, that’s exactly what they’re doing. It doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to watch.

While these collapsing high-rise dramatics are the best thing about the film, the elevator shaft struggle of Kristian and Idun never really gets going. Although in part, that’s because of the film’s choice to follow The Wave in going to some dark places. In fact, it outstrips its predecessor in that regard, because takes one look at Idun, the mother of two children and the recently returned love of Kristian’s life, and decides to kill her off—one of only eight characters who really do any talking, and the emotional center of the film. That’s some cold shit.

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Not only that, it twists the knife further by first making you think Idun’s going to do the “noble sacrifice” thing that so often happens in films to make the death less sad, and therefore more palatable to the mainstream audience (you know, the standard-issue, “You have to go on without me, the kids need you, I’d slow you down, I love you but this is my choice” etc., etc.), only to walk it back with a moment of determined optimism. After assuming she was going to die following a nasty leg injury and a failed attempt to follow Kristian to safety by swinging across the shaft from the dangling elevator cable (it drops a few feet, leaving her out of range of his outstretched hand), it actually seems like the movie is going to rally and let her live. She summons up her willpower, and in a Hollywood-level display of gumption, starts pulling herself up the cable, towards Kristian, determined to live. She hoists herself up, reaches out to Kristian, and they touch hands. And that’s when the fucking hammer drops. Literally. What a dark way to go.

Kristian eventually gets to Julia, and after a decent high-wire balancing act to save her from plunging through the shattered window and falling thousands of feet to her death, rescues both her and Marit, the three of them making it to safety. But it includes the scenes where Julia realizes her mom is dead. The movie lingers on that exchange between estranged father and daughter. And it ends with Marit alone in her deceased father’s room, alone, and Kristian, Julia, and son Sondre on a boat back to Geiranger, expressions grim. That’s quite the downer ending for a disaster flick, a genre that usually ends on the moment of uplift or optimism—a family being reunited, or a home being rebuilt. Not so for Norway; these people are made of bleaker stuff than that. And if you’re looking for a silver lining, here’s the end title cards: “Norway has the highest amount of earthquake activity in Northern Europe. Scientists agree it is going to get worse.” Have a fun ride home from the theater, Norwegians!

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: This thing is a hit in the motherland. It may not make as much of a wave in the U.S. as, um, The Wave (Sorry. I almost made it to the end without doing that!), but it’s done just fine for itself. The Quake has nothing to apologize for. It’s a middling disaster pic, not unlike many our studios churn out, albeit with less crowd-pleasing effort. If there’s another sequel, maybe consider getting to the exciting parts sooner?

Damnable commentary track or special features? The Blu-ray contains the usual assemblage of behind-the-scenes featurettes on the making of the film, from cast to set design to the stunts and VFX breakdowns. There’s even a bonus talking about how something like this will definitely happen, because that’s a real incentive to Norway’s tourism industry.