Release date: May 6th, buy , 2013
Running time: 114 minutes
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
On Boxing Day 2004, a huge submarine megathrust earthquake caused a tsunami to strike off the west coast of Indonesia. Water landed in fourteen countries, the worst affected being Indonesia itself, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, and killed over 230,000 people. It’s hard to measure and equate how destructive disasters such as this are today, given that we now have enormously populated towns and cities that are dense with infrastructure and transport networks. In history, there’ve been similarly catastrophic earthquakes and tsunamis which have yielded fewer deaths in places where the land had not yet been inhabited. We ask ourselves: are the incidents worse today or do we simply have “more” to lose?
These questions surround and engulf discourse on climate change and global warming, weather patterns and national defence systems. Do natural disasters reflect a form of purification where nature battles against the toxicity of our gas production? Is it repayment for an internationally ignorant attitude towards the environment? Is there a higher frequency of extreme weather conditions today or are we just more aware of the consequences given how easily we can document them? It’s tricky to discuss these issues in the wake of tragedy, as emotion and grief are factors which are almost impossible to separate from an academic debate on prevention and protection. This unfathomable sense of severity and loss signals towards the title of Juan Antonio Bayona’s film.
The Impossible is based on the true story of one Spanish family who where in Thailand when the tsunami occurred. Strangely however, the director has swapped the family to a British one, the mother and father played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. The couple, along with their three young boys, arrive in an idyllic Thai resort for Christmas; Bayona takes some time to set up their holiday – a slice of good fortunate means that the hotel situates them in one of the finest suites available. This turns out to be folly, as while the family relax by the poolside, the tsunami hits.
The biggest concern in a film such as this, or in any disaster film which uses real-life accounts, is how do you capture the destruction accurately, so that a spectator appreciates the scale of it, without embellishing what we see purely for entertainment and shock value? This very question suggests that a documentary format may well have proved more useful and sensitive as it would have allowed for a discussion of who was affected and to reflect on the disaster against others in history. Bayou and the cast used the Channel 4 documentary, Tsunami: Caught On Camera, as a reference point to learn about the people who were actually there. Bayona could’ve achieved more by developing this format and The Impossible would’ve also avoided being labelled as an exploitation movie. The director’s said he feels the film provides an opportunity for people to remember those who were killed but also to give attention to the event – this would have been more honest had he let people speak for themselves.
What Bayona does explore successfully is the suffering that comes with survival. Even though people lived through the tsunami, the death of loved ones, the sense of loneliness, the wreckage and the search for family are all evident in The Impossible. From the moment the tidal wave roars over the buildings and sweeps away all in its path to the eerie calm which followed, Bayona demonstrates how fierce the water-flow was and how badly the land was ravaged. The true heartbreak is found after the mayhem subsides and the magnitude of what has happened settles in: realising you may never be reunited with family members.
Decisions on how to make and recreate the tsunami with special effects, however questionable, are forgivable transgressions in a film which at least tries to remain sensitive without losing its potency. What can’t be forgiven however is the decision to ignore native people who had their homes and livelihoods completely destroyed – not just their hotel suites. Bayona’s choice to cast McGregor and Watts (to practically anglicise the story) is shameful. It’s symptomatic of bourgeois egocentricity, to imagine tragedy only through western eyes and to somehow measure catastrophe by how close to home it is. What about the people who actually lived in Thailand, Sri Lanka or India? Bayona says that by sticking to one family, we’re able to appreciate how deeply it affects people – but it characterises how unable we are to empathise with eastern countries. The director’s decision suggests an incapacity for cultural compassion; we’re to somehow resonate with the disaster more if the lead characters are British.
This is what turns the film into a rhapsodised exploitation movie; leave aside how well Bayona tells a story, he’s opted for one which is possibly the narrowest version of events. There’s supposedly a moment of benevolence when Naomi Watts’ character surfaces with a potentially grave leg wound: a local man carries her to safety, and with the help of others, takes her to hospital. This is the only glimpse of indigenous people; they will go out of their way to make sure rich westerners are delivered to safety first. It’s arguably an instance of human aid, signifying that people from all cultures come together in times of great tragedy; but it’s actually Bayona glorifying the western characters by saying they’ll always receive help from those around them. This ruins the entire film; it becomes a mawkishly soapy retelling of events, idealised and shielded through western sentiment, instead of dealing with more necessary, urgent and savvy conversations on natural disasters today.
Andrew started out writing theatre reviews in Edinburgh while studying for a degree in Arts Journalism. His interest in film came after attending several festivals across the UK. In particular, he discovered a love of documentary cinema, specifically the work of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.
Andrew loves films which investigate stories of undocumented struggle and solitude. Some favourite docs include Grizzly Man, King of Kong, 5 Broken Cameras, L'encerclement, Inside Job and Shoah.
Andrew runs a Scottish arts review website, TVBomb, and you can follow him on Twitter at @ajlatimer.