Gille Klabin’s drug-trip movie The Wave hits, as the title suggests, in waves of overwhelming color and noise. As its protagonist surrenders to a powerful hallucinogen for most of the film, he finds it hard to track what’s going on around him, and that loss of control invites panic and fear in both him and the audience. But experiencing a trip is nothing like watching someone else go through it. That degree of separation keeps The Wave from becoming totally nightmarish, and so do the eccentric visual effects, which lend a fresh edge to an otherwise old story about a man learning to be less selfish.
Justin Long stars as Frank, a corporate lawyer whose years of caring only about money have made him callous. When he discovers a loophole that will block a dead firefighter’s family from collecting on his huge life insurance policy, he’s quick to exploit it, increasing his company’s profits, and all but ensuring his promotion to an executive position. In celebration, he decides to join his coworker Jeff (Donald Faison) for a night of partying.
Soon, a pair of women, Natalie (Katia Winter) and Theresa (Sheila Vand), lead them to a house party, where Frank and Theresa agree to try a mysterious drug offered by a back-room dealer (Tommy Flanagan). Almost instantly, Frank starts hurtling through time, or at least perceiving time as a series of erratic jumps. He arrives in places and conversations with no idea of how he got there, as though he were dropping into or out of a dream.
Almost every time-and-place shift in The Wave occurs with visual effects that seem to physically push and pull at the fabric of reality. Some make the film seem like a 3D movie being watched without 3D glasses, as seen through one of those apps that claims to make photos look like oil paintings. Other effects throw the action into slow-motion, adding kaleidoscopic lights. It’s increasingly disorienting, as Frank attempts to figure out what’s happening to him, and to find Theresa, who has disappeared.
As Frank’s skipping through time gets him and his friends into trouble, it becomes more difficult for Frank to keep up with what’s happening, and the visual effects lend to the sense of stress. They overload the audience with stimuli, taxing them in the same way Frank is being taxed by his frantic surroundings. The film’s bold, exaggerated look, which includes rotoscope animation and an exaggerated neon color scheme, lends a little more merit to a fairly pat morality tale. And the style gets some help from a twist about exactly how Frank’s time-traveling works, and the nature of the otherworldly hallucinations he keeps experiencing. The movie’s 87-minute runtime is also welcome, since it just barely keeps the VFX from wearing out their welcome.
But while the experience is exciting, it ultimately doesn’t have much substance. The artistry at work in The Wave isn’t enough to keep the film from caving in under its middling story. The conclusion is pleasantly hopeful, with its suggestions that there’s more to life than money, everyone can make a difference in the world, and that even seemingly untouchable people can wind up facing cosmic justice. But those are quotidian messages compared to the visuals. Frank’s voiceover galaxy-brain musings on letting go of the fear of death have that same stock quality, especially as his character turn, which occurs over several compressed days, comes across as convenient rather than genuine — the filmic equivalent of a friend thinking they’ve discovered the true meaning of life after one strange trip.
As Frank, Long does his best to make the character shifts convincing. He’s the only character with an arc rather than scattered appearances, and he has to carry the film’s dramatic weight. He hits it out of the park in conveying desperation and a gradual breakdown, and helps ease the audience into Frank’s change of heart by initially throwing likeability out of the window. It comes suddenly, but it’s at least a perceptible difference. The other characters are mostly caricatures: corporate shark, manic dealer, tough guy.
The Wave hits a few sour notes, like the contrast between Frank’s cartoonishly shrewish wife and “cool girl” Theresa, which adds to the ticks in the “predictable” column. Those ticks outnumber the ones in the “inventive” column, ultimately placing the film square in forgettable territory. Klabin’s sense of visuals are promising, and they help draw the audience in, but The Wave is a puzzle box that, once opened, reveals very little inside.
The Wave opens in select theaters and will be available on VOD on Jan. 17.