Most disaster films follow a satisfyingly predictable formula: set up a statistically unlikely yet looming threat, introduce a number of sympathetic characters to root for once that threat inevitably comes to fruition, let hell break loose, and then showcase the previously established heroes saving the day. THE TUNNEL starts out strong, sticking to the disaster film formula with style and efficient characterization. It stumbles midway through, however, falling victim to pacing issues and mawkishness that undermine the promise of the first half.
Stein (Thorbjørn Harr) works on Norway’s extensive tunnel system. He is the lone voice of reason in the civil service and wants to close the dangerously icy roads, but it’s Christmas Eve and no one else wants to interfere with holiday travel plans. Stein lost his wife three years ago, and after learning that he wants to spend Christmas with his girlfriend Ingrid (Lisa Carlehed), his teenage daughter Elise (Ylva Fuglerud) impulsively jumps on a bus to Oslo to escape her father’s perceived betrayal. After the viewer meets more of the aforementioned characters to root for (or against, in a few cases), Elise’s bus ends up with their cars in a tunnel that will very quickly become a death trap. A sleepy, distracted trucker crashes his gasoline tanker after an errant bit of litter obstructs his view for a moment, and the dominoes soon fall after that: everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and dozens of vehicles filled with Christmas travelers are stuck inside a structurally damaged tunnel that turns into a nightmare of flame and ash.
Opening titles inform the viewer that the Norwegian tunnel safety system is based on “self-support.” If there’s a fire or any other kind of accident inside the tunnel, the titles state, you’re on your own. Writer Kjersti Helen Rasmussen and director Pål Øie clearly see this film as a warning that it’s only a matter of time until the horrific events of the film occur in real life. It should be a chilling call for enhanced safety precautions, but the film’s descent into egregious sentimentality and emotional manipulation ironically detract from the horrors of the tunnel disaster. A late reveal induces groans, and third-act plot machinations amplify the film’s pathos at the expense of its thrills.
Despite its narrative faltering, THE TUNNEL shows touches of stylistic flair. Overhead shots of slim roads carved out of ice establish a mood of malevolent foreboding. The snowy mountains loom on either side of the tunnel as evidence of nature’s unforgiving vastness. When Stein and his partner Ivar (Mikkel Bratt Silset) stride into the smoking tunnel to assess the damage, they appear to be walking straight into hell. It’s a striking image that drives home the personal toll of the tragic accident more effectively than many of the more maudlin scenes that follow. Even scenes of the plastic bag that caused the accident by landing on the wrong windshield at the wrong time are quite lovely, if a little too on the nose in the way that the blue plastic being pushed to and fro by the arctic winds reminds the viewer of the cruel whims of fate.
Fans of disaster films will find a lot to enjoy in THE TUNNEL. Beyond some beautiful visuals, it ticks off the familiar plot and character beats in enjoyable ways that seem to promise a tense, thrilling story. It simply doesn’t live up to the standard it sets for itself early on, aiming for clumsy tear-jerking scenes rather than moments of suspense or earned catharsis. Much like its characters, THE TUNNEL gets stuck halfway to its destination without any escape plan.
THE TUNNEL will be released in theaters and will be available on Video on Demand on April 9, 2021.