In the opening moments of The Tunnel, an onscreen notice informs us that there are over 1,100 tunnels in Norway, and that, in the event of an emergency situation in any one of them, it’s really just a case of every person for themselves. There have been eight major fires in recent years, we’re further informed. Guess what’s about to happen?
The Tunnel is a disaster movie happy to stick to the formula laid down in the ancient texts like The Poseidon Adventure. And so it is that in The Tunnel a group of people going about their every lives is suddenly subjected to an extreme ordeal testing their physical and moral endurance. Some will fare better than others. A hero will emerge, who is usually obvious from the get-go. And someone will be exposed as a snivelling coward and selfish bastard – see Richard Chamberlain in The Towering Inferno – and fate will reward that behaviour appropriately.
This being a modern iteration of the disaster movie, the hero will also be a lone voice who has up to this point been crying in the wilderness, certain that precisely this disaster was heading this way. And there’ll also be a bit of family estrangement which the disaster has a hand in sorting out (The Day After Tomorrow, San Andreas).
The Tunnel ticks all the boxes. It’s also a Norwegian disaster movie and so it sits neatly alongside 2015’s The Wave (jeopardy: a tsunami up a fjord) and 2018’s The Quake (Oslo hit by a gigantic earthquake). “Neatly” means that though the disaster formula is followed to the letter, the “sell” is that this is a human drama first and foremost. In the likes of San Andreas and The Day After Tomorrow the special effects could sometimes get in the way.
Plot? A snowplough driver having parenting issues with his teenage daughter – her mother died and she thinks he’s “moved on” a bit too quickly – is called out when a fire in a 9km tunnel traps an assorted bunch of people. The action revolves between in there, out here and off at a control centre, where a single switchboard operator attempts to co-ordinate the first two. Among the people “in there” are truck drivers, a bus laden with passengers, and a family comprising two parents and their kids. The kids have a hamster. “Out here” are reliably Viking-bearded, clearsighted snowplough driver Stein (Thorbjørn Harr, of TV series Vikings), whingey uppity colleague Ivar (Mikkel Bratt Silset), who’s constantly jockeying for position and believes he knows better than everyone else, plus various other rescue workers, concerned parties etc.
Manning the phones is Andrea (Ingvild Holthe Bygdnes), who will become more important as the film progresses and is one of The Tunnel’s claims to humanity. The “this time it’s personal” element of jeopardy comes from the fact that, unbeknown to Stein, his antsy daughter Elise (Yiva Lyng Fuglerud) is also in the tunnel, where, chip off the old block, she is attempting to do what she can for the frightened folk being subjected to trial by fire, heat, smoke, fire, more smoke and explosion.
There is one more significant location: a diner/roadside pull-in, where an entitled Tesla-driving representative of the elite is bridling at the fact that he can’t get through the tunnel and is giving his son a hard time. The child, dressed as Joseph, was trying to get to his nativity play, this all happening in the run-up to Christmas.
Jeopardy is met by bravery and resourcefulness or cowardice and defeatism and director Pål Øie works his way through the disaster movie playbook, skilfully sewing together the familiar elements and quite possibly wondering whether he’s overdoing the smoke, which is so dense that for much of the film it’s hard to work out what exactly is going on.
Is technical competence enough? Yes, it mostly is, and the characters, ciphers though they are, are played with conviction. Plus, Øie summons the sense of claustrophobia well, contrasting the dark impenetrability of the tunnel with the white expanses of mountainous landscape outside. And there’s a big emotional payoff at the end, when, disaster survived (or not), the story returns to the people on the sidelines. As for the hamster…
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© Steve Morrissey 2022