The Tunnel Balances The Spectacles of Danger and Heroics

Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

The disaster movies love to take the well-worn “Murphy’s Law” of “anything that can go wrong will go wrong” as pseudo-logical permission to get excessively creative with their hazards and menaces. There’s most certainly spectacle to be generated but also a risk of overindulgence. Just ask Roland Emmerich. The new Norwegian dramatic thriller The Tunnel from director Pål Øie is somewhere wisely in between. 

In the country of Norway, one chiseled from mountains and fjords, their roadways have over 1000 tunnels, some several miles in length and most without emergency exits. As the credits of The Tunnel further present, it is the traveler’s personal responsibility to get out if one were ever trapped. It’s a case of “plan for the worst, hope for the best.” That general “it’s on you” statute sets the parameters for the country’s traffic management and disaster response teams. There’s also a movie premise to be found in mining the falling dominoes of possibilities.

A road winds with traffic through snowy forested mountains.
Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

While Murphy’s Law demands factoring for “anything,” drafting realistic rationales make for smarter real-life outcomes and intelligent movies that still carry compelling entertainment. Threatening intense confinement and choking darkness, The Tunnel dangles human vulnerability and fortitude in balanced portions. Picked up stateside by Samuel Goldwyn Films, the foreign language thriller debuts in theaters and VOD on April 9th.

Taking you into the “Land of the Midnight Sun” north of the Arctic Circle, a fast-moving snowstorm is approaching and the hulking snow plows push efficiently to keep the asphalt clear for ground transportation of citizens and commerce. Locals know to follow and respect the slow-moving convoy with patience and confidence. Away from the outside snow, one place susceptible to accidents are the titular enclosed paths through the mountains. 

A chain reaction of tiny events in the Storfjell Tunnel causes a gas tanker to block both roadway directions and ultimately ignite. The unchecked fire envelopes nine kilometers of jammed traffic with increasingly thick and poisonous fumes with little options for escape. Fire sensors trigger large fans, but they cannot keep up. Therein lies the steady danger.

Elise hugs her father Stein.
Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Ask any firefighter and they’ll tell you. It’s the smoke that gets you. 50-80% of fire deaths come from smoke inhalation injuries more than flames. It’s not the flashiest, sexiest, or most violent of movie threats, but no less treacherous, carnal, or urgent within the ticking clock of a movie thriller.

Naturally, we’ve come to know a few of the people caught in this growing disaster. A passenger on a shut-in bus is Elise (Ylva Fuglerud), the estranged teen daughter of a widowed lead emergency worker named Stein (the headlining Thorbjørn Harr of Vikings and Bel Canto). The girl’s adopted knowledge of her father’s workplace and emergency skills comes in handy, while the indomitable will of a father pushing forward at all risks to rescue his daughter propels The Tunnel.

Echoing from the notion of planning and hoping earlier, systems are in place to track travel flow, open communication lines, and empower computerized ventilation. Geared-up and vehicular help is available, but they may not arrive in time. Until then, keen observations and resourceful reactions are the most valuable aids. One key side plot in The Tunnel is carried by Road Traffic Control dispatcher Andrea, played by Ingvild Holthe Bygdnes. Andrea monitors the escalating emergency, guides Stein and his supervisors, and heroically refuses to leave her post until help succeeds. Both on the scene and from this post afar, The Tunnel is very respectful to the efforts of vital personnel from all support layers.

Stein talks to his daughter on the phone outside the tunnel.
Image courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

With the likes of Andrea and Stein in mind, one admirable trait of The Tunnel and its narrative is a noticeably reduced level of helplessness. Too often in similar (and particularly the domestic-borne) movies of this genre, the feeble among the participating crowd are the loudest and worst characters. Those amplified characters feel planted to annoy and be thin foils to the do-gooders. They also tend to cause the more maddening happenstance blunders and contrivances. 

In The Tunnel, there is a little bit of the “everything will go wrong” telegraphing going on that audiences will see coming. Equally so, overcompensating acts of heroism as a result do teeter close to melodrama. However, a fair balance is present. At the human level, the nerves and fears are equally shared by all, from the people in the thick of it to the sympathetic and hopeful bystanders who understand the gravity. All come to this situation, much like the film itself, with a try-hard, pull-up-your-bootstraps attitude more than anything else. 

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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