Thursday, June 18, 2015

White People Problems

Film: The Impossible
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

I have a feeling that the effect of the film The Impossible on me is very different from what was intended. The Impossible is a much more modern take on an old school disaster film. It benefits greatly from being a much more realistic version because it is based on a real disaster and a real story. That should be enough to make the film a compelling one, and I won’t say that it’s not compelling or well-made. But there is a serious problem lurking in the festering heart of this film, and it more or less ruins a great deal of what it sets out to do.

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.


  1. Blancocentrism (to coin a term; if you search it on Google, you get only 5 hits) was immediately my thought the moment I saw the preview trailer way back when. Good call.

    1. It's not even a fine line that needs to be drawn here. I have no issue with the film coming from the perspective of a tourist who was suddenly thrust into this situation; the film is based on the real story of a Spanish family who lived through the tsunami. That's not the problem The problem is that there are no significant Thai characters anywhere. Worse, while the Thai people are consistently helpful to the visiting Europeans, not a single European seems moved by the devastation beyond his or her own personal tragedy.

      In short, the Thai seem to be concerned with helping and rescuing anyone they can and the tourists seem only concerned with rescuing people they know or, in a few cases, people who look like them. It's telling that at one point Maria and Lucas rescue a child who is...German (I think). And significantly, no one seems to have a problem with this.

  2. I am not really an expert on the tsunami and I do not know the exact figures, but it is my impression that the movie played out reality quite well. The tourists were on the beach and the at the resorts so they took the brunt of the disaster. The Thai generally lived further inland and while I am sure there were large casualties there as well, they were generally second in line, though as far as I remember some 5000 Thai died. The accounts of the tourist survivors generally confirm the story, that the Thai were extremely helpful and although pandemonium ruled they did try to make order on things. I think it is also fairly natural that the tourists are looking out for each other. They are in this together and very far from home. True, the movie could have given us more views of the disaster that struck the Thai, but we see this through the eyes of the Bennett family and what they see are glimpses of familarity (westeners) in a chaos world. My heart cried out for the Swedish family in the movie, some 450 Swedes died on the beaches and it is still a national trauma there.
    A movie engaged with the larger picture would have to focus on the disaster that struck the Aceh region on Sumatra where entire cities were erased, but that of course have less western interest.
    For the record I have Thai relatives so in the family we were quite upset with the disaster.

    1. I'm not sure you're giving the West enough credit here. Hotel Rwanda grossed more than The Impossible did in the U.S., for instance, despite having no Euro-Anglo-Caucasio-centric story. Apocalypto made 2 1/2 times The Impossible's gross despite being about "primitive" people and in a different language.

      People want stories that are compelling. This is a compelling story and is a story worth telling, but the focus is too small. We need a story to hang onto, of course, people to care about, but the film seems to ignore the stories of anyone who isn't white. I'd have been much more interested in the story of the nurse who seems to exist only to admit that the hospital made an understandable mistake amidst chaos. The Bennetts get to leave, after all. The Thai have their entire life to rebuild.

      I'm not an expert on the tsunami, either. It may well be that in Thailand the tourists took the brunt of it, but I'm guessing that the thousands of Thai workers in the various resorts took the hit as well.

      I don't have Thai relatives, but I do have friends in Bali, so I get where you're coming from.

    2. I am sorry my tone was a bit harsh there. This movie made an impact on me and I am a bit touchy on the subject.
      You are of course right there are plenty of examples of successful movies about non-westeners in disasters and I also often get fed up with the western-centric view of many movies. There is always the nagging suspicion that the choice was made because the paying audience would relate more to one of their own. I do not think this was one of the most blatant examples though, exactly because it is seen from the viewpoint of that particular family. This is not a documentary after all.
      It is quite difficult to cover massive disasters well in movies. How do you tell a story about hundreds of thousands and even millions dying in some war or natural disaster. It easily becomes numbers and statistics. (Ace in the Hole). It may have benefitted the story if we hade seen the Thai suffering as well or having the charecters care more for them, but I actually liked that the story was as focused as it was.
      Anyway, my point is that I understand your point and I am sorry for my shrill comment.

    3. Eh, you weren't that shrill. It's hard to do vocal inflection in writing.

      I agree that the best way to tell a story like this is through one person or a small group of people. I don't even have a problem with the main characters being European in an Asian country. The issue is entirely that the film seems to Euro-centralize the issue--this is something bad that happened to white people, not something bad thta happened to people.

      It's the difference between "Look at this terrible thing that happened" and "Look at this terrible thing that happened to me."

  3. I honestly never noticed the Euro/Asian thing. That's probably because I didn't find this movie as compelling. I already knew what happened to the family it was based on so the huge number of minutes spent on the "oh god, are they going to be okay?" aspect was wasted on me. Frankly, I was kind of bored. Maybe if they had shown more of the impact on the Thai, which I was not as familiar with, I would have been more interested.

    1. I agree completely. I'm far more interested in understanding what happened to the people who don't get to leave than the family who gets to go home with an incredible story to tell the neighbors.

    2. For me, this movie was ok. Not great, not terrible. I thought Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor were excellent and did what they could, with what the movie gave them. Watts, in particular, gives depth to a character that could have had none. So I like her nomination, in a film that's just kind of meh. Interesting review, as always.

    3. It's one of Ewan McGregor's better performances.I'm mostly impressed with the depth of Tom Holland's performance.