“The Impossible”… Hell in high water

Posted on January 5, 2013

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On the flight to Thailand, for a family vacation, Maria (Naomi Watts) and her husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) wonder if they remembered to switch on the burglar alarm before leaving. This is about the extent of their worries, and they laugh it away. It’s Christmas. They check into an expensive resort with an eye-catching view of the ocean. On Christmas Eve, they gather by the beachfront and, with other tourists, let loose paper lanterns into the night sky, and the next morning, their three young boys – aged 10 through five, and named Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) – tear open boxes filled with presents. After swimming around colourful tropical fish and coral, Henry wonders, briefly, if recent developments at his office could cost him his job – but instead of dwelling on the issue, he races towards his boys in the pool and jumps in. Nothing, apparently, can dampen their spirits. Nothing, except the water beyond, which soon comes calling.

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JA Bayona’s The Impossible is the true story of a family of five that was separated by the tsunami of December 26, 2004. We expect a drama – the director gives us a disaster movie, with walls of water in the place of, say, the murderous Martians in War of the Worlds. Earth is ravaged. People die horribly. Survivors, aided by the kindness of strangers, search for loved ones. And the horror-movie music – juddering sound effects disrupting stretches of silence — primes us for genre thrills. Will Lucas, clinging to a utility pole while waves surge around him, escape electrocution by the wires dangling from above? What is that icky, bloody stuff that comes out of Maria’s mouth? And how does she disappear, like a ghost in a penny dreadful, in the hospital? Will Lucas be reunited with his father, who’s in the backseat of an automobile that’s just being revved up? And will the three brothers, circling each other Yaadon Ki Baaraat-style, come together in a group hug?

There’s something unsettling and exploitative about a real-life tragedy being used as wallpaper for a fairly routine genre outing, however well performed, well made. It’s odder that the story seems to focus only on the plight of the whites, with nut-brown locals reduced to nurses and stretcher attendants. (No subtitles are provided so that we feel the full extent of the whites’ alienation). The realisation that this is a true story doesn’t dispel the queasiness when the help-seeking voice that Maria goes after turns out to belong to an adorable blonde boy, or when Lucas brings about the reunion of a Swedish father and son. Was it so difficult to shoehorn into these scenarios one Thai victim? The most unexpected development occurs when Lucas catches sight of his mother’s breast through her torn attire. The boy looks away, but, a little later, we learn that he’s not forgotten the incident. But what comes of this? Nothing. Why, then, bring up this plot point, which, if developed, might result in a real horror movie?

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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