The Impossible: a real human story is the ultimate victim in this pedestrian disaster movie

Juan Antonio Bayona, “The Impossible / Lo Impossible” (2012)

Someone should have told Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts before they signed up to this film the quote by W C Fields: “Never act with animals or children”. In this otherwise pedestrian film, the child actors are easily the stars and Tom Holland in particular is the star around whom the entire film eventually revolves. Based on the experiences of a Spanish family, the film retells the events surrounding the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami that took the lives of over 230,000 people in Southeast Asia from a particular point of view.

McGregor and Watts play British couple Henry and Maria Bennett who take their three boys on holiday to a beach-side resort in Khao Lak in Thailand. They fuss over the usual things like who was the last to leave the house and turn the alarms on. The parents fret that they might return to find the house full of squatting hippies sleeping in their beds and (eek!) wearing all their clothes. The boys tease one another and one child refuses to sit next to big brother Lucas (Holland). After the usual problems of going through customs and convincing the inspectors they’re not sex tourists, drug couriers or fundamentalist fruitcake missionaries out to steal children for their adoption agency back in London or Wales or wherever, the parents haul the brood over to the Khao Lak where they pig out along with all the other European tourists while Thai waiters, masseurs and the odd prostitute (male, female, dog) wait on them hand and foot. After a couple of days of sheer boredom, it’s time to jack up the plot level to 11, at which point the tsunami hits and washes everything far inland.

The rest of the film is about the Bennetts’ travails in finding one another and getting Maria, severely wounded from being smacked into glass and debris and half-strangled by vines by the force of the waves, to immediate medical help. McGregor and Watts do all they can to play fairly one-dimensional and stereotypical characters and infuse them with some character without making them look histrionic. Unfortunately Watts has perhaps played too many “brave and stubborn mother” characters for her portrayal to appear credible and her best acting is all done in bed under a respirator. McGregor is better in his role as the desperate father searching for Maria and Lucas while keeping the other boys together and in his despair making dumb decisions that endanger his life. Indeed, the film appears to privilege the Bennett children over their parents. Lucas is forced very quickly to mature in order to protect his mother and get medical help, and to occupy himself in the makeshift hospital; he reunites a Swedish man with his son and sees to it that a toddler he and Maria have saved finds his parents. Lucas’ siblings Thomas and Simon (Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast) cope with the aftermath of the tsunami with stoic and innocent good humour and cheer up a Scottish lady (Geraldine Chaplin) with their wonder at the stars in the night-sky.

One problem with this film is its underlying ethnic bias in appealing to a Western, and in particular an English-speaking, audience. Why did the original Spanish family have to be made over into a white British family? The family members’ first names were kept and I would have thought that if the film were pitched at an American audience (a considerable percentage of whom is Spanish-speaking by linguistic background), the family should have remained Spanish. There would be additional problems for the family in trying to communicate with the Thai authorities and other tourists, and we would see Lucas turning from boy to man in five seconds flat trying to act as impromptu interpreter as well as carer. Although the film portrays the Thai people quite sympathetically, it is odd to see mostly faceless Thai people in positions of servitude again while white people are lolling about horizontally, just in a different context. Indeed, given that the vast majority of people who died in the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami in Thailand were Thai, I’m astonished that the film omits any mention of their tragedy, even in the end credits.

The plot feels very manipulative and rather top-heavy with its first half dominated by Watts and Holland fighting the waves and managing to find each other, scramble to safety, save a small child and get help. The switch to McGregor and the younger children seems just a bit too rushed and glib – it seems the littlies saved themselves by grabbing fronds attached to palm trees in waters rushing at over 100 km/ hour – and the second half of the film pales in comparison with the first half. The climax is of a classic multiple-shot “will they find each other? will they miss each other?” plot device that scrambles around looking for a set of coincidences that will bring everyone together. The little guys need to pee so they delay their transport driver, another transport driver has problems starting his engine and Lucas thinks he’s spotted Dad.

The cheesiest and most manipulative part of the film is in the dream sequence in which Maria, under anaesthetic, relives being hit by the waves and smacked into a brown watery hell in which she gets cut after cut on her body. Predictably the dream experience pushes her towards a light and the audience wonders whether reaching the light means she dies on the operating table or not …

When all was said and done and the lights came on in the cinema, it was telling that the mostly middle-aged and affluent audience started bolting for the doors instead of staying for the credits: what we had just seen was little more than a disaster movie with disaster movie narrative elements (dramatic music, strong and stubborn parents, one family member in dire straits needing emergency treatment, resourceful teenage son, cute little kids who all manage to survive with no cuts, wounds or psychological trauma) and nothing more. Everything is reduced to the banal and the film offers no great insight into the characters and how much they might have changed, how closer they might have come as a family as a result of the disaster. The pity is that there was perhaps a real human story in that film if the film-makers had taken a little more liberty with it in a different direction: spoiled teenage son thrust into a situation where he must look after mum after she has saved his life, being forced to grow up, making friends with strangers and in the process learning something about the Thai people, and acknowledging that he and they share a common humanity.

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