Origins are always the best part of superhero stories, and it’s hard to imagine anyone coming up with a better origin story than the one that starts off French mystery thriller The Last Wave (SBS On Demand). Not just because it involves surfers and a mysterious and possibly toxic cloud, but because that mysterious cloud engulfs and possibly changes the surfers while they’re out surfing. How cool is that?
It’s almost disappointing that they don’t promptly fly off to use their powers to fight crime – but only almost, because this rapidly turns into a thriller of a very different kind.
Brizan is a quiet seaside town in southwestern France. Sun, sand and surf are the big drawcards; it’s a place where people go to relax and forget their troubles. To celebrate the return of local surfing hero Max Alcorta (Roberto Calvet), the town puts on a surfing contest – one that goes ahead even when the weather takes a turn for the strange.
The only person who seems worried about the odd-looking cloud hovering over the sea is scientist Ben Lebon (David Kammenos), in town on holiday with his wife Lena (Marie Dompnier) and teen Yael (Capucine Valmary) as they struggle to come to terms with a recent death in the family. So in the tradition of small seaside towns everywhere since at least Jaws, the contest proceeds despite the warnings of danger. The cloud comes down and engulfs the surfers – including Lena and Mathieu Ketchak (Théo Christine). When it lifts, they’re gone.
Five hours later they return, seemingly unharmed but with no memory of what happened to them. It’s not until later they discover they’ve come back changed: scars have vanished, their eyes have changed colour and strange abilities are starting to manifest. But these changes are only the beginning of the events in store for Brizan and its residents. The cloud is coming back, and it hasn’t finished with them yet…
Fans of series like The Leftovers and The 4400 will find a lot to like in this tale of a community struggling to come to terms with a supernatural event beyond any obvious comprehension. The twist here is a strong environmental theme running throughout; rather than having some supernatural or other-worldly link, the threat here comes directly from nature fighting back against the people who’ve exploited it for too long.
It’s a nice touch too that this looming disaster takes place in an idyllic location; often disaster stories are too busy with the disaster to pay much attention to where it’s all taking place. Especially when it’s a story of nature turning bad. Showing the peaceful side of things first sets up a strong contrast. Even in a place that seems ideal to get back to nature, nature has a dark side.
It doesn’t take long for the cloud’s effects to spread beyond the initial five surfers. Before long even those seemingly safe on dry land are in danger, as the cloud’s power turns the ocean’s might against them. Yet another wave appears, only this time it heads onshore, and leaves devastation in its wake. And while Ben struggles to find answers that can explain what’s going on, the locals demand action – the kind of action that, in Ben’s opinion, can only make things much, much worse.
As an ensemble drama this works on two levels; the personal changes that the cloud wreaks on individuals, and the wider disaster that looms over the town. It’s a smart pairing, giving the story the wide scope of a disaster movie while providing a range of human stories that are often downright creepy in their own right. At one stage Lena undergoes a bizarrely rapid pregnancy; that’s enough for a decent drama series on its own.
At its heart, this is a story of a small group of people struggling to cope with a series of vast and seemingly uncontrollable changes in the environment. Parallels with climate change can’t even be called subtext, and while the fantasy element provides some relief – fingers crossed those five surfers can find a way to use their powers to calm and control the cloud – underneath it all remains a fear that’s all too topical.
This small town is facing a nightmare that is much, much bigger than them, and not everyone is going to survive.
'The Last Wave' is now streaming at SBS On Demand
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