Inside Norway’s Exciting New Disaster Cinema

Alongside its arthouse dramas and dark fantasy films, Norway has, since 2015, also produced disaster movies on a scale that both replicates and rivals Hollywood’s end-of-the-world fare.

Nordisk Filmdistribusjon
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Tsunamis rising from fjords, the North Sea catching on fire, earthquakes leveling Oslo, and the most sophisticated sweaters you can imagine — welcome to Norwegian disaster cinema.

When Norway makes a splash in the international film scene, it’s usually for dark fantasy, like the Nazi zombie film Dead Snow or the mockumentary Trollhunter. Or it’s for auteurist drama: the country has produced directors Morten Tyldum and Joachim Trier, whose romantic comedy The Worst Person in the World was highly acclaimed in 2021. But Norway has also been creating exciting disaster films since 2015, including movies such as The Wave, its sequel The Quake, and the recently released The Burning Sea. These Scandinavian cataclysm pictures balance Roland Emmerich–scale effects with intimate human drama. Combined with a focus on Norway’s natural beauty, that’s the secret recipe that sets these films apart from your usual Hollywood fare.

The Wave, directed by Roar Uthaug, has a boilerplate high-concept story: a rockslide in a fjord threatens to cause a tsunami and drown a small mountain village, but nobody will listen to the scientists until it’s too late. That is, except Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner), a work-addicted, rolled-up-sleeves professional who’s determined to do whatever it takes to save his family and his town.

Uthaug brings Spielbergian flair to his story, stretching his meager $6 million budget by shooting in the real town of Geiranger, using sparse CGI, and doing as much in-camera as possible. (In a perilous underwater scene, Joner also has to do all his own diving.) The low-budget, lo-fi approach recalls many 1980s Hollywood blockbusters and 1990s disaster films like Twister and Dante’s Peak. Visually and narratively, the film is stunning, full of floodlights (very Spielberg!) and complex character arcs that blend nicely with the disaster drama. The film was enormously successful with critics and audiences, earning over $12 million worldwide and becoming the highest-grossing film of 2015 in Norway. Uthaug then moved to Hollywood to helm the Tomb Raider remake, leaving the keys to a sequel in the hands of cinematographer John Andreas Andersen.

Andersen’s 2018 follow-up The Quake again stars Joner but morphs Kristian into a sad, divorced, conspiracy theorist dad — the most Spielberg of all — and relocates the action to the city of Oslo, where Kristian attempts to rescue his family from an earthquake. The action this time is more reliant on set-pieces: Kristian, his daughter (Edith Haagenrud-Sande), and his friend (Kathrine Thorborg Johansen) try to escape a restaurant as the room is turned sideways; he navigates an elevator shaft as the building comes down around him; and Idun (Ane Dahl Torp), his wife, rummages through a collapsing theater. The film was once again a hit, grossing $14 million on a budget similar to that of The Wave.

The scale of The Quake graduates beyond a picturesque Scandi hamlet of a few thousand people. High rises topple; Oslo is leveled. The devastation, though, is still on par with smaller Hollywood blockbusters — citywide carnage instead of four-course Emmerich disaster extravaganzas. In terms of tone and plotting, the film comes closer to 2020’s Japanese nuclear disaster film Fukushima 50 than anything American. The Quake elides gratuitous destruction in favor of believable characters fighting for their lives on the ground, juxtaposed with the boardroom politics of out-of-touch suits.

Norway’s latest disaster film, also directed by Andersen, is 2022’s The Burning Sea, which follows a fictional Exxon Valdez–style oil rig catastrophe off the coast of Norway. Filmed on real rigs, The Burning Sea leans more toward suspense-thriller territory than disaster camp, with a more streamlined story, less set-up, and an emphasis on drama over increasing spectacle or a rising body count. It follows robotics researcher Sofia (Kristine Kujath Thorp), who sets out to find and rescue her boyfriend Stian (Henrik Bjelland) after he becomes trapped underwater following a rig explosion.

Andersen notes in interviews that he didn’t set out to make a typical American-style blockbuster when he made either The Quake or The Burning Sea. Neither film has The Rock riding a speedboat into a tsunami or John Cusack flying a plane between two collapsing skyscrapers. The stakes of Norwegian disaster movies are, so far, not on par with the likes of Geostorm, 2012, San Andreas, or The Day After Tomorrow. Instead, they tend to foreground one catastrophe at a time, and all three of the aforementioned films pace their first hours slowly enough to ingratiate viewers to the characters and then build up to the cataclysm.

The titular wave of The Wave occupies all of five minutes of screen time — everything before is the dread-inducing set-up, and everything after is the characters dealing with the consequences. The Quake mostly sidesteps the table-setting to get to the disaster, but even then, there are no cutaways to extras dying en masse or dozens of characters to juggle; it’s just a father trying to rescue his daughter and escape a high rise. And, while The Burning Sea’s American analog Deepwater Horizon is an ensemble effort chugging along on a budget exceeding $100 million, Andersen’s film cuts its cast to the bare essentials and drills into their relationships, with a much smaller budget to burn.

The characters may sometimes seem to be disaster film stock, but Uthaug and Andersen carefully show us Kristian bonding with his kids or Sofia partying on the beach with friends, luxuries their American cinematic counterparts rarely enjoy. These Scandi blockbusters do not completely abandon the cinema that put Norway on the map, but instead fuse arthouse cinema and crowd-pleasing, special effects-laden films to create a happy medium: the rare blockbuster that actually cares about its characters.

For decades, Norwegian cinema has folded the international into the national. Without a centralized studio system or a sizable domestic audience, large-scale productions were always a tough sell. But after the establishment of a new film school in the 1990s and a national film fund in 2001, the country’s filmmakers began to reclaim screen turf from the Hollywood genre films that had been dominating the Norwegian box office. They fought fire with fire.

Films such as 2001’s Elling, 2003’s Villmark (Dark Woods), and 2008’s Max Manus attempted to emulate American takes on genres like buddy comedies, horror, and action films. They were rewarded with success at home and abroad, but debate ensued as to how “Scandi” these films actually were and to what extent Norway’s national cinema was being subsumed by the desire to appeal to overseas audiences. Modern Norwegian disaster cinema, in some ways, follows these same trends by copying the model of the American disaster film.

Central to Norwegian disaster cinema’s Scandi DNA, however, is its trademark Scandi costume design — sweaters for days! — and its emphasis on the country’s natural beauty. They’re tourism adverts as much as blockbusters. The Wave lingers on the beauty of postcard-perfect little town Geiranger and its sinister fjord. The Quake spends much of its first hour celebrating the sleek modernism of Oslo’s skyscrapers and concert halls — you know, before everything’s destroyed. And The Burning Sea has plenty of establishing shots of the shoreline, especially at dusk, so the colors can bounce right off the water. The country’s production model makes this emphasis on natural beauty cost-effective and sensible; without a centralized studio system, each production has more incentive to film on location, taking its cast and crew to Geiranger or Oslo or the North Sea rather than using a green screen.

Norway’s primary export is not cinema, then, but itself. In the earliest days of Scandi film, short films marketed the exoticism and natural beauty of Scandinavia. Little has changed since. Now, not only do these films’ use of Norwegian vistas increase the potential for tourism, but so too do the amenities and luxuries on display when a character checks into a hotel room, and so too do the sweaters and accents and assurances that any disaster that would kill 250 people in Geiranger is something scientists are already thinking about.

The three most famous disaster films out of Norway couch themselves in real science, and so, as much as they promote the country, they’re also cautionary political tales. More than the others, The Burning Sea wrestles with the morality of exploiting the country’s natural resources as it takes aim at the oil drilling industry that has made the North Sea one of the most profitable places on the planet.

With its recent international successes — including, alongside these disaster films, The Worst Person in the World — Norwegian cinema is certainly having A Moment, the likes of which it hasn’t had in… oh, ever? Norway is proving that its cinema is more than just arthouse releases: it’s producing top-tier Hollywood imitators that retain the disaster trappings and plot structures but swap out the interior for something more emotional, more compelling, and more quintessentially Scandi. Andersen says he won’t make another disaster film immediately following The Burning Sea, but the door is open for other directors to take the reins. There’s still so much of Norway to destroy in the name of tourism, environmentalism, and really chic sweaters.

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