Though it will forever be associated with one brief mid-1970s heyday, the disaster-movie genre has made a stealth comeback in recent years, being a natural fit for a cinematic era dominated by CGI-laden action fantasies. Of course Hollywood has kept its hand in, with efforts like “San Andreas” and “Pompeii.” But there have also been parries as far afield as China, whose enjoyably ridiculous, volcano-centric “Skyfire” from late 2019 only reached the U.S. this year.
No country has been as assiduous in reviving that Charlton Heston spirit, however, as Norway — which has produced just three so far, but then that’s a not-inconsiderable share of its big-budget feature output in recent years. First there was the rockslide/avalanche/tsunami/flood whammy of 2015’s “The Wave,” then its self-explanatory 2018 sequel “The Quake.” Now there’s “The Tunnel,” unrelated to the aforementioned save that it obviously wouldn’t have been made without their commercially-successful act to follow.
Solidly crafted if a bit uninspired, Pål Øie’s thriller is like a horizontal, colder, sootier “Towering Inferno” minus the all-star-cast, though their soap-operatics are intact. It’s getting released to virtual cinemas on March 12, with Samuel Goldwyn launching in actual U.S. theaters as well as wider VOD April 9.
On Christmas Eve Day, everybody is heading home for the holidays, many through one or more of Norway’s 1,100-plus tunnels. It’s an awkward moment for stoic Stein (Thorbjorn Harr), because he’d like to spend this vacation time with both the women in his life. But teenage daughter Elise (Ylva Lyng Fuglerud) clings to the memory of the mother who died of cancer three years ago, and thus resents his finally “moving on” from that spousal loss with cafe owner Ingrid (Lisa Carlehed). When dad proposes they celebrate Christmas as a trio, his only child storms out in a huff, impulsively catching an express bus to Oslo.
That proves an unfortunate choice, as the five-mile tunnel through a nearby mountain pass — whose maintenance and safety have comprised civil servant Stein’s longtime work — is about to suffer blockage. Amid already-treacherous icy road conditions, a trucker panicked by fleeting visual impairment crashes against the tunnel walls, disabling his vehicle and halting a long line of impatient drivers behind him. That’s bad enough. But things get a lot worse when an electrical short and his leaking gasoline cargo ignite. Those not incinerated in the immediate vicinity are nonetheless threatened by the black cloud of smoke that soon fills the entire narrow expanse filled with trapped travelers.
His vacation over before it’s begun, Stein is called to the emergency scene along with other first responders including cocky young Ivar (Mikkel Bratt Silset), who’s exactly the kind of irate loudmouth you know will buckle under pressure. Additional major figures here are personnel at the Road Traffic Control Center in Bergen; a family with two young daughters who get separated in the melee; and fellow bus passengers led to temporary safety by Elise, who thanks to dad knows the tunnel like the back of her hand.
Suffocation is not the most cinematic of perils, so after initial catastrophes have occurred around the 45-minute mark, “The Tunnel” finds its drama a bit stuck, in more ways than one. Characters at risk are in a pitch-black, airless interior, while all the light and spectacular scenery is outside, where emergency workers worry how to rescue them. There’s a degree of grim tension for a while. Then things get a tad monotonous, unrelieved by the tendency of Kjersti Helen Rasmussen’s screenplay to lean hard on maudlin parent-child crises. Some earnest emotionality is welcome, but a few tears go a long way in a popcorn enterprise of this nature. The filmmakers overestimate how many noble sacrifices and pleading “Don’t die!!” moments one disaster flick can take.
While decently paced (frequent Øie collaborator Sjur Aarthun is both editor and cinematographer here), the film also settles into an inevitable eventual rut when there is little real action, just searching and waiting. We’re all too aware, once a late additional peril arrives to endanger nearly-rescued protagonists, that it’s been grafted on to yank the slackened narrative tension taut again.
That said, “The Tunnel” is still involving enough, if not as physically impressive or fun as “Wave” or “Quake.” The cast generally underplays to good effect, with Harr (best known abroad for a role on “Vikings” several seasons ago) shouldering the principal manly burden of fearless duty with quiet, convincing aplomb. Directing the first feature script he hasn’t had a hand in writing, Øie nimbly bounces back to genre terrain (though not the flat-out horror of prior features) after arthouse biopic “Astrup,” which came out just a couple months before “Tunnelen’s” Christmas 2019 home-turf opening.
That period drama was presumably a greater labor of love than this competently crafted, large-scaled entertainment. “The Tunnel” is very much redolent of earlier disaster epics, albeit while stinting on their guilty-pleasure cheese factor without quite achieving compensatory depth or memorable thrills.