Two exceptional Scandinavian disaster films — one with an avalanche, the other a tsunami — recently debuted on video, providing relief from summer’s sweltering heat. However, those who like their disaster films on the scale and in the mode of Roland Emmerich flicks like The Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day should look elsewhere.

Force Majeure (Sweden, 2014) and The Wave (Norway, ’15) both feature the frightening power of natural forces, but their real focus is on the humans who try to withstand elements beyond their control. In other words, each is an example (particularly Force Majeure) of a thinking person’s disaster movie.

The title of the first one’s a bit misleading (intentionally, I’m sure), especially if we Anglicize the words to mean something like a major power or event. In actuality, the phrase “force majeure” (a French legal term) refers to a catastrophic occurrence, incident or circumstance (for example, war or an avalanche) that frees those involved of culpability or responsibility — loosely, as in a legal contract, “an act of God.”

In the movie Force Majeure, though, almost exactly the opposite occurs. A non-disaster forces individuals involved, directly and indirectly, to reassess relationships and responsibilities in a new light, based precisely on initial reactions to something beyond their control. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), with their young children Vera and Harry (real-life brother and sister Clara and Vincent Wettergren) embark on a five-day skiing vacation at a gorgeous (and obviously expensive) Alpine resort. The first day on the slopes and in the plush hotel’s polished confines (both gorgeously photographed by Fredrik Wenzel) make for a perfect getaway for a seemingly perfect family.

The next morning, however, as they breakfast with other guests on an outside verandah, a controlled avalanche seems at first to go awry, the snow and mist cascading down the mountain in a blanket of white that nearly blots out everything — even the camera image — momentarily. As it turns out, the danger is more apparent than real, and the guests continue with breakfast, more thrilled than anything at the experience.

Except for Tomas and Ebba. Initially, he ran, leaving her and the children behind. At least that’s how she sees it. For both of them, their vacation non-event turns out to be the crossroad in their marriage. Ebba insists on trying to understand what happened while Tomas insists on denying anything happened at all. Meanwhile, the kids, fearing divorce, want everything to be as it was.

Though it may sound grim and depressing, Force Majeure is equally exhilarating and penetrating in the way writer/director Ruben Ostlund observes this very human drama with a seemingly detached objectivity, all the more powerful for its effectiveness. When Tomas and Ebba are joined by Tomas’ divorced
friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his considerably younger girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius), the dynamics of love and responsibility are extended even further,
Fanni forcing her boyfriend to look deeper into himself than he’d prefer.

Impeccably acted and directed, Force Majeure features lots of talking, lots of snow and spectacular scenery, and absolutely brilliant cinematography. The open-ended conclusion, with a bus ride down a steep winding road, may at first seem puzzling but, as with the avalanche, proves the perfect coda to the drama (some reviewers inexplicably call it a comedy/drama) about the different kinds of forces or pressures people, especially couples, confront in life’s twisting, winding relationships.

The Wave is a disaster film in the traditional sense: The “force majeure” or “act of God” clobbers its victims with a wallop. The special effects are impressive, but they’re not the major focus of the film, as is the case in most other films of this genre. Indeed, the catastrophic event occurs near the middle and actually occupies a minimal but effective amount of screen time. It’s the drama and tension before and after that propels The Wave to its crest.

The film opens with newsreel footage from early in the 20th century, depicting the devastating results of a landslide and the resulting tsunami on a mountain village. Cut to present day, as Kristian (Kristoffer Joner), a resident geologist at a government warning center, is preparing to leave his post for an office job in the big city. Everything appears copacetic in the mountainous idyll for the moment, giving Kristian and his wife Idun (Ane Dahl Torp) time to ready their possessions and kids (teenage son, adolescent daughter) for the relocation.

Of course, Mother Nature is a real bitch.

The opening section ratchets up the tension for the viewer. The characters, with the exception of the wary Kristian, are oblivious to the danger. When the alarm sounds with the triggered landslide, the inhabitants have 10 minutes to find higher ground before the tsunami, swelling from the mountain fjord, sweeps away everything and everyone in its path. The final third of The Wave shows the aftermath, which is even more suspenseful — the danger is not over.

Directed by Roar Uthaug, slated to helm the Tomb Raider reboot with Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, The Wave recalls The Impossible (2012) and the original Poseidon Adventure (1972) in terms of character development and structure. Less cerebral than Force Majeure, it’s still an intelligent and exciting story of survival when a family is, quite literally, cast adrift in catastrophic circumstances.