“The Impossible”… Hell in high water

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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6 thoughts on ““The Impossible”… Hell in high water

  1. My first thought on seeing the trailer was a cynical one – “Great! Now I need to root for a white family suffering through a devastating third world tragedy?”. Sounds like the movie is just an extension of that.

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  2. I tried my best to like this one, but failed miserably.
    The trailer had promised nothing but a routine disaster movie and yet I was lured in to watching this by Ebert (“‘The Impossible’ is one of the best films of the year”). Really, what was he writing about?

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  3. Your last para was exactly what I found unsettling about the film. The routine genre was okay-ish given that there really was an absence of Cameron-style over-dramatisation and a certain cosmetic approach to the lost-n-found story. It was heartfelt and old-world but well-done old-world. But yes, why was it only about the whites, I kept asking? I dismissed it as maybe my over-sensitisation to Third World marginalisation but then I see many of us feel the same. Hmmm…

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  4. I quite liked this one. I wouldn’t qualify it as “best of the year” or something, but it made me feel quite emotional at the end. Is it a tad melodramatic? Probably. Is some of the music and situations towards the end every so slightly manipulative? Yes. But I’ll be the first to admit that I like a bit of melodrama/manipulation from time to time. Steven Speilberg has taught me as such. And I have no shame in admitting that the end did bring a tear or two to my eye.

    But even if it didn’t work at all for you, you just have to admit that the Tsunami sequence was one of the most visceral from 2012. The Special Effects Oscar is probably going to go to one of those big budget blockbusters, but I hope for once a “lesser” film wins it. I’ve not been more “in-the-moment” in a film in a long time. It made me hope to God that this is as close as I ever get to one of those monster waves.

    Naomi Watts is apparently one of the shoe-ins for the Best Actress Oscar. So far, Jennifer Lawrence is the only strong competitor for Silver Linings Playbook, which I hope gets a release here soon. But Ewan McGregor was equally brilliant, and was terrific in the scene he where he breaks down amidst other survivors.

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  5. balajisi: I don’t have a problem with manipulation/melodrama at all. But a film has to earn its emotion, and I found this constantly taking the easy way out.

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  6. There were also no bodies of Thai locals in the aftermath of the disaster. But there were bodies of whites, and a dog. The ending, too, was contrived.

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