The Tunnel begins with something of a startling fact for those who might be unaware of Norwegian safety measures when it comes to travel through tunnels: It is up to the individual to save one’s own life in the case of emergencies. The story of Kjersti Helen Rasmussen’s screenplay is inspired by real accounts of disasters within the tunnel systems of Norway, where fires have broken out and only coincidence has saved lives. Other than one room, closed to the public, in which the controls for the air recirculation system in the tunnels are located, there are no exits or safe spaces in the case of, say, a fire in the tunnel. Here is a film that gives us an example of exactly that in practice.

Director Pål Øie’s film is not a political one. It seems important to point that out because, while it certainly is making a statement, the intentions of Øie and Rasmussen are primarily of the thriller variety. This is a no-nonsense disaster movie, basically playing out in real time, in which hapless Christmas travelers are trapped inside a 5.6-miles-long tunnel, approximately two miles into which a tank truck carrying flammable materials has wrecked itself and exploded, sending the billowing smoke out of the wrong end of the tunnel.

Even saying “the wrong end of the tunnel” will be like reading hieroglyphics for those who do not have regular exposure to the way this works for a Norwegian emergency services crew. Inside the tunnel, one family gets out and calls for help on a nearby emergency phone. The operator on the other end, Andrea (Ingvild Holthe Bygdnes), believes this to be where the crash occurred, and since there is little evidence to the contrary (what with no one being able to reach anyone else, because cellular service is shoddy) and each side of the tunnel falls under the care of different emergency service technicians, she sends word for one group of technicians.

The inevitable problem, of course, is that the crash actually occurred nearer the other side of the tunnel, meaning that the technicians with the relevant equipment to turn the internal fans in the proper direction to recirculate the oxygen are arriving at the wrong end to be of any help. This all likely sounds like the processes of aliens on a distant planet, but it really does call attention to the bad job being done in Norway of keeping citizens safe via common-sense procedures.

The story, though, actually follows Stein (Thorbjørn Harr), a snowplow operator who was once an emergency-services technician until the death of his wife. He has been avoiding calls from his daughter Elise (Ylva Fuglerud), who wants to reconnect with her dad after some time of estrangement, but she is resentful of his budding romance with Ingrid (Lisa Carlehed) so soon after the loss of her mom.

Elise ends up on a bus to Oslo when the central disaster occurs: A tank truck driver is distracted by a freewheeling plastic bag, crashes the massive vehicle, and is unable to move the successive drivers behind him quickly enough before the whole thing explodes. That sends the smoke toward the side of the tunnel where Stein’s old crew, led by Christian (Per Egil Aske) and Ivar (Mikkel Bratt Silset), has congregated, waiting on those at the other end to finish with another emergency miles away and arrive at this new one.

We meet other characters here, such as a happy family whose singing and celebration will soon be snuffed out amid this tragedy and a father whose son is almost certainly going to miss that pageant. Rasmussen does a fine job of defining these characters in a hurry, since much of the focus is on putting them in danger, but it luckily never feels like these characters are easy fodder. We feel the terror of the situation because they do, such as when the occupants of a bus perform the seemingly kind but doom-laden act of opening the doors to someone yelling for help.

Øie and editor/cinematographer Sjur Aarthun communicate the truly claustrophobic nature of this thoroughfare, and in many ways, it is the main character of The Tunnel. Getting it right gets us most of the way there, and the gaps have been filled by characters in whom it’s worth investing our sympathy.

Summary
We feel the terror of the situation because the characters do.
70 %
No Escape
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