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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

The Tunnel (Tunnelen) movie review: fire in the mountain

The Tunnel green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

As stuffed with soap-opera clichés as its cinematic precursors, but this is nevertheless a solid and diverting rescue procedural… and it’s somehow even more shocking for how mundane its disaster is.
I’m “biast” (pro): love a good disaster movie

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

If you liked the Norwegian disaster duo of The Wave and its sequel, The Quake, then you’ll love Norway’s latest attempt at terrifying calamity. Because its scenario is infinitely more realistic. Writer Kjersti Helen Rasmussen’s script for The Tunnel is, in fact, spun out of several real-life tragedies from recent years.

Norway is, we’re told as the movie opens, riddled with traffic tunnels, miles-long shortcuts through mountains, and in the event of, say, a crash or a fire within, everyone stranded inside is pretty much expected to save themselves. (They just don’t build such things as escape accessways into the tunnels. It’s like the nation is courting actual Scandi horror.) This is somewhat belied by the fact that first-responder Stein (Thorbjørn Harr: Bel Canto) is quickly on the scene at one of the entrances when, on a snowy Christmas Eve, a tanker truck crashes and then explodes inside a five-mile-long underpass near his rural alpine community. Still, his boss, crusty mayor Christian (Per Egil Aske), insists they wait outside until the better equipped team on the other side of the mountain can do the hard work, and Stein is basically okay with that… until he discovers that his teenaged daughter, Elise (Ylva Fuglerud), is on a bus inside. Now, just try and stop him from heading into the dense smoke and blackout conditions on a mission to bring her out alive.

The Tunnel Thorbjørn Harr

“I have a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for mountains like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it.”

The Tunnel is just as stuffed with soap-opera drama and clichéd characters as all its cinematic inspirations, both the local ones and those from Hollywood, but this is nevertheless a solid and diverting rescue procedural that focuses both on those stuck in the tunnel and those outside. How do you deal with the sense of powerless impotence when you can do little but watch from afar, as is the plight of Andrea (Ingvild Holthe Bygdnes), a sort of tunnel observer and traffic controller who takes desperate calls from emergency phones inside the mountain pass but can offer little advice beyond “wait in your car”? How long do you wait for help when it’s getting tough to breath even inside a sealed-up vehicle? (Elise turns out to be a smart and resourceful kid who knows exactly how long.)

This isn’t a relentlessly grim experience, but director Pål Øie doesn’t wholly spare us from the gruesomeness of how this dreadfully plausible disaster unfolds, either… and it’s somehow even more shocking for how mundane it all is. I’m really not sure I’d be able to drive through a tunnel like this one if it was before me after seeing this movie.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2020’s other new films.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2021’s other new films.



green light 3.5 stars

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The Tunnel (Tunnelen) (2020) | directed by Pål Øie
US/Can release: Apr 09 2021 (VOD)
UK/Ire release: Sep 21 2020 (VOD)

MPAA: not rated
BBFC: rated 12 (moderate threat, injury detail, disturbing scenes, strong language)

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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