Big historical events like the Christmas Tsunami in 2004 are tough to depict in a movie. And I’m not talking about the technical aspects. These days that’s simply a matter of hiring a good special effects company. I’m talking about narrative scope. Over 200,000 people died in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand on December 26 of that year. You cannot possibly tell that whole story with any kind of emotional impact. It’s too big. So obviously you tell one story with the disaster as the setting.
The Impossible is based on a true story of a Spanish family that was on vacation when the big wave hit. They get separated and have to find each other in the resulting chaos. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play the parents Henry and Maria. The nationality of the family was changed so that recognizable stars could play the parts, even though this film was funded in Spain and was directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, a Spanish filmmaker.
This is an intense film. The camera is in constant motion, emphasizing the uncertainty of the characters’ predicaments. There is a great deal of bass on the soundtrack which gives you a disquieting rumbling in your gut. You understand the danger in the underwater scenes during the tsunami with all the debris swirling through the water at lethal speeds. It’s only luck that gets the main characters out of that maelstrom alive. The sets and locations effectively portray the danger of the post wave period. The hospital in particular looks filthy and you wonder how anyone gets out of there without a staph infection.
Naomi Watts gives an alarming performance as a woman that goes to the edge of death. The script helps her. At first she is a doctor and insists that her oldest son, Lucas, played by Tom Holland help others in the hospital. Later, she is so delirious that she doesn’t care when he tries to tell her that a toddler they’d rescued right after the wave had been reunited with his father. It’s a masterful performance.
Ewan McGregor stands out as a devoted family man, determined not to admit that his family might be dead. Tom Holland gives perhaps the best performance as a kid starting to enter his surly teen years forced to grow up in a hurry under tragic circumstances. To me his is the most compelling story.
I don’t usually give spoiler warnings, because I try not to spoil endings. I will say that this obsession with spoilers is overblown in most cases. Most movies do not require that you be surprised in order to be entertained. I do respect other people’s wishes, however.
So fair warning, in order to talk about what I want to talk about I am going to have to spoil the ending. Stop reading now if you don’t want to know. I’ll hit the return key a few times to give you a chance of not seeing the next sentence.
They all live. Naomi Watts already spoiled this somewhat when she said that she met the woman her role was based on. By the middle of the film, the mother is the only character you’re worried may not live.
The fact that every member of a family of five survived such devastation and was somehow reunited in the chaos resulting from it drives the thematic tension of this film. It gives the film its title, because if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, you wouldn’t believe it.
My mind keeps going to the theme of white western privilege. At the end they are flown to a clean Singapore hospital because they have good insurance. You can see the guilt in their faces even if it’s mixed with relief at getting out. It can be interpreted that they are so privileged that even fortune smiles on them. The natives die and that’s just too bad. But that’s not really what the filmmakers are saying. There are plenty of western families in the disaster that lose family members.
Even though the typical experience in the disaster is death and loss, I think the story of this fortunate family is appropriate because of the way storytelling works. We like stories about survival. We like happy endings. If it wound up that the mother died and the father never reunited with his oldest son, we’d just be depressed and probably stay away in droves.
But every member of this family realizes how lucky they are. They know that their happiness at their own survival and reunion comes amidst unspeakable tragedy and sorrow. The last shot where Naomi Watts is looking out of the plane’s window at the ravaged coastline and weeping is tremendously moving. Sure it’s survivor’s guilt but it’s also a realization that a hundred things could have gone differently and changed the ending.
Even though you’re happy for this family you’ve come to know, the filmmakers never let you forget the hundreds of thousands who died. And they never let you forget that in the end you are helpless.