The Tunnel


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Tunnel
"Øie makes good use of the claustrophobia generated by his smoke-filled tunnel, knowing when to keep it simple, and this will doubtless be terrifying to some viewers."

From Snakes On A Plane to Ashfall, modern disaster movies have a tendency to try and come up with the worst possible scenario, no matter how silly, then watch as experts and amateurs alike try to deal with it. For extra points, they make use of unique or unusual settings. The Tunnel takes a purist approach to this formula, with very little else going on. There's a storm coming. A couple of truckers decide to rush to make their route ahead of it. One of them crashes pretty much exactly halfway through a five mile tunnel, which is under a mountain. Then it explodes. Oh, and the bus full of people in there with it is carrying the lead firefighter's resentful teenage daughter.

Said firefighter, Stein (Thorbjørn Harr), is best known outside Norway for his work in popular series Vikings, and still looks the part here, with a gigantic blond beard and facial features not so much chiselled as hewn. He cuts a striking figure and it's easy to believe that he might battle his way through a blizzard to reach the tunnel mouth - less believable that he, or anyone, would be able to get through the thick, black, glutinous smoke that fills it with the limited breathing equipment at their disposal. His occupation also means that his daughter, Elise (Ylva Fuglerud), has special knowledge, but she has rather less authority and struggles to get all of the people on the bus to listen to her advice. Meanwhile, people stranded in their cars argue over whether it's safer to wait or try to walk out of there, and various characters worry about the fate of two young girls who have become separated from their parents.

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In many ways the film plays out like an Eighties slasher movie. There is peril out there in the dark. Most people understand that it's safer for them to remain where they are, in vehicles, in emergency shelters or outside the mountain, so writer Kjersti Helen Rasmussen needs to keep coming up with excuses for them to place themselves at risk. This means that more things have to go wrong in unlikely ways or characters need to make stupid decisions, something we tend to accept too readily onscreen when research tells us that, in real life emergencies, very few people behave that way. Director Pål Øie tries to keep us with these people by focusing on the way they feel about each other, but whilst Harr carries this fairly well and there's a pleasing practicality about Stein's reconnection with Elise, elsewhere it's overblown, clogging up the narrative with sentiment much as characters' lungs are clogged with smoke.

There's another awkward aspect to this, and that's that everybody either survives or dies. Some are taken to hospital but accompanied by the sort of swelling music that reassures us they'll be just fine, when the data on major fires suggests life-altering injuries, and firefighters would know this. The omission makes it difficult to accept the emotional arc of the film, which ends up feeling rather superficial, and the more so because there's very little focus on loss of life. At times one feels more as if one is watching a training video or a film put together in the hopes of persuading politicians to draft stricter health and safety legislation.

On a more immediate level, Øie makes good use of the claustrophobia generated by his smoke-filled tunnel, knowing when to keep it simple, and this will doubtless be terrifying to some viewers. With the smoke surrounding them, vehicles feel tightly enclosed and much smaller than usual, and Sjur Aarthun's cinematography enhances this effect, as does the contrast with the bright icy landscape outside. There's a sense here of the ancient opposition between human civilisation and the stubborn geology which, in the north, it has always been pitted against.

A serviceable thriller if you just want a bit of help to imagine you way into a dangerous situation, The Tunnel is handsomely produced and will entertain you for a while, but you might not want to go all the way through it.

Reviewed on: 27 Mar 2021
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When a truck crashes inside a tunnel, people on their way home for Christmas are brutally trapped in a deadly fire. With a blizzard raging outside, and the first responders struggling to get to the accident.

Director: Pål Øie

Writer: Kjersti Helen Rasmussen

Starring: Thorbjørn Harr, Ylva Fuglerud, Lisa Carlehed, Mikkel Bratt Silset, Peter Førde, Daniel Alexander Skadal

Year: 2019

Runtime: 105 minutes

Country: Norway


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