Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
The Impossible is a survivors’ tale of the 2004 tsunami that swept through the Indian Ocean causing mass devastation and a death toll that number in six figures. That in and of itself should make for a truly compelling story. To put a human face on the story, something I would argue is required for something of this scope and magnitude, the film is focused on the Bennett family, who are vacationing in Thailand around Christmas. After a couple of uneventful days, the tsunami hits. This—the total devastation of everything within miles of the ocean—is what the audience comes to see. It does not disappoint. This is disaster filmmaking at its best and grandest, and this alone makes the film worth seeking out.
The disaster footage goes on for some time, as it should. When the swirling waters stop, our family has been separated into two groups. The first is Maria Bennett (Naomi Watts) and oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland). Maria is injured, but the two manage to survive until they are discovered by a group of natives, who take them to a nearby hospital. A medical record mix-up causes Lucas to think his mother has died for a portion of the film, but the two are eventually reunited. However, Maria’s health continues to decline, and her weakened condition makes operating on her serious leg injury that much more dangerous.
After dealing with Maria and Lucas, we switch to the other three members of the family. Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor) has managed to find middle son Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and is now desperate to find Maria and Lucas. He sends the boys off with a large group to higher ground while he looks for his missing wife and son. And really, this is the whole movie. It’s about survival, dealing with unbelievable natural horror and destruction, and an attempt to reunite through tragedy.
It would be difficult for this not to be compelling, and it truly is compelling in many respects. I’m mildly surprised at the Oscar nomination for Naomi Watts, whose performance seems mainly to consist of being injured and acting really sick. She does this well, but she spends a great deal of the film near-comatose with an oxygen mask strapped to her face. Much more impressive is the performance of Tom Holland as young Lucas. He gives a very mature performance here and comes across as not merely natural but real and believable. Ewan McGregor has the most emotionally intense moments, and he plays them well.
So where’s the problem? The significant issue with The Impossible is that it is completely Euro-centric, or at least Caucasian-centric. Because he is relatively uninjured, Maria tasks Lucas to help out in the hospital as he can once she is being taken care of. What Lucas decides to do is start seeing if he can reunite people who are missing family members. Who does he help? White people. This isn’t a language thing, either. He’s more than willing to help people who speak German or Italian or Spanish, but of all the people he speaks to, he speaks to only a single Thai person. Throughout, we are concerned only with the fates of the white tourists in the area. Native people go out of their way to help the white people who seem completely uninterested in doing anything to help with the crushing devastation that has just reduced the area to rubble.
I am not suggesting that this story isn’t worth telling or isn’t important. It absolutely is. It does feel strange to me that a natural disaster that killed more than 200,000 people in Asia, devastated huge areas in Asia, and uprooted millions of families in Asia would be told through the points of view of a bunch of white Europeans. The Thai people exist here only in their capacity to help various white people, who exist only to care about their own problems and, in a limited sense, to help other tourists.
Egregious in a different way is the scene toward the end of the film where Henry is wandering around a Thai hospital and misses his family, even coming to stand just next to the bed in which Maria is laying without looking beyond the curtain to spot her. This is followed by Lucas walking right past his brothers without seeing them. It feels manipulative and it angers me that the film is so blatantly playing with the emotions of the audience. When Lucas does find his brothers, the music swells and the Thai children (who don’t really matter in the world of this film) just look on. Even at the end, we see only white Europeans grieving over the lost and dead.
A final issue with the film is that we get the emotional climax more than 10 minutes before the credits start rolling. The last 12-15 minutes of the film feel like it’s just playing out to reach a certain length rather than giving us much at stake other than the success or failure of Maria’s surgery and we know this with a good 6 minutes or so still to go.
I am very much of two minds on this film. Strictly from a story standpoint and in terms of the effects, The Impossible is excellent and worth seeing. It feels dirty in its soul, though, like it’s furthering this idea that only the problems of the white people matter and that this film might not have been worth making had there been no white tourists for us to care about. At least it doesn’t get all Jesus-y.
Why to watch The Impossible: Disaster always makes for a compelling story.
Why not to watch: It’s manipulative and very white-centric for a disaster that happened in Thailand.