The Impossible tells the story of a family who manage, against all odds, to survive the 2004 South Asian tsunami. An early title claims that it’s ‘a true story,’ and I believe that’s mostly accurate. That tsunami was one of the most horrific of modern times, claiming the lives of over 230, 000 people in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. The film does not in any way minimize that devastation, and the scenes in which we see people engulfed in the raging waters of the tsunami are powerfully filmed, completely terrifying. The screenplay makes for a very strange film in many ways, but it’s certainly beautifully and compellingly made.
The film follows the Bennett family, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three boys, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). The boys are young, 10, 6 and 4. They’re British, but Henry works for some big multi-national corporation based in Japan, where they live. Maria is a physician, but isn’t currently practicing, to raise her kids. They’re clearly very well-off, and as we meet them, are vacationing in a posh beach-side resort in Thailand. They’re swimming in the resort pool when the tsunami hits, and the next twenty minutes of the film are a nightmare, as we see the horrendous danger they’re barely able to survive. In fact, we initially follow Maria and Lucas, swept away by treacherous currents, desperately clinging to trees, to mattresses, to whatever flotsam they can grab a tenuous hand on. They can see each other, but it takes them forever to finally grab hold. It’s a tremendous feat of filmmaking, by director Juan Antonio Bayona.
When finally the waters begin to recede, they slosh through the horrendous muck left behind to search for a tree to climb in case of another giant wave. They hear a crying child, and discover a three year old child, who joins them. They climb the tree, but Maria has been badly injured, and before long, her injuries become infected. They’re found by Thai villagers, and eventually taken to a hospital, where Maria languishes, half-dead, and Lucas desperately tries to help. Meanwhile, Henry has rescued Thomas and Simon, and sends them away on a Red Cross bus, while he continues to slosh ineffectually along the beach, shouting himself hoarse, searching. Finally, he joins up with other tourist survivors, and begin to search hospitals.
The story of this family’s survival is nothing short of miraculous. The courage and dedication of these two parents is remarkable, as well as the toughness and resilience of their kids. At the same time, most film critics pointed out that there have been two films so far about that tsunami, this one and Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, and both focused on the travails of, well, rich white people. Entire Indonesian villages were wiped out in that tsunami, families, extended families, all obliterated. And there were undoubtedly equally compelling stories of courage and survival. I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything in this film to suggest cultural insensitivity or ethnocentrism, and the ending of the film, with the family safely aboard a jet headed to Singapore wasn’t terribly triumphant–the focus is on the devastated coastline over which their plane is flying. I’m still troubled by the implications of making a tsunami film in which the peoples who lost their homes and families and lives essentially serve as props in a film about Europeans.
But I don’t think The Impossible was ever intended to be a Hollywood film about the tsunami. I think it was originally intended as a film about this one family, and their remarkable survival. And their name wasn’t Bennett, it was Alvaraz.
This was clearly always going to be a Spanish production. The entire production team, from director to screenwriter to every grip and best boy are all Spanish. Here’s what I think happened: this family comes home and tells this remarkable tale of survival, and Spanish production companies thought that story was amazing and worth filming. But it’s a film about a tsunami. Water effects, CGI, shots in a water tank, thousands of extras, high-cost sets. You can’t really make a small film about a big thing, like a tsunami. So to recoup their production expenses, they had to aim for a bigger market than just the Spanish market. And that means Hollywood, and American movie stars.
Granted, the American movie stars they cast, Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are actually from Australia and Scotland. Hey, we Americans will take our movie stars from wherever we can find them. But they count–they’re famous, they’re good actors and they’re attractive, blonde Westerners. And they’re really good in the movie–it’s not like the movie is hurt by bad acting. They’re terrific, both of them.
Are there no Spanish American movie stars they could have cast? Like, say, Antonio Banderas, Benicio del Toro, Javier Bardem, Gael Garcia Bernal? Indeed there are, and they’re all wonderful actors, all of them. Cast alongside, say, Selma Hayek, or Jennifer Lopez? It is a little weird. Antonio Banderas is a big star and a terrific actor, and although I love Naomi Watts, I couldn’t say that Selma Hayek is any less of an actress. There’s no reason you couldn’t make a Hollywood film about the Spanish family all this stuff really happened to, and cast big-time Hispanic movie stars to play them.
But if you did that, it wouldn’t make sense for them not to speak Spanish to each other. And Americans won’t see movies with sub-titles.
But I do believe that the screenplay stays pretty close to what actually happened to the actual people. There are too many story oddities that are best explained by ‘that’s what really happened.’
Screenwriting is about set-ups and pay-offs. You establish plot points early on, and them they’re resolved later in the movie. And, like, the defining characteristic of this screenplay are set-ups that just sort of lay there, that nobody does anything with and that don’t go anywhere.
Example: the movie makes a point of telling us that Maria is a doctor. And she barely survives the tsunami, is injured, but able to move around. Well, what would that be setting up? Obviously, the story of heroic doctor lady, who despite her own injuries tends the injured, with the help of her intrepid son. That is what Hollywood would do, right? Except it doesn’t go anywhere–instead, her wounds become infected, and she spends the last three quarters of the movie unconscious, on a hospital bed.
In my classes I would talk about a volitional protagonist, how the protagonist of the film has to make the most important choices in the story. And Maria gets way more screen time than Henry does. But she’s the very definition of a non-volitional protagonist. She spends most of the movie laying in bed, either completely unconscious, or mostly so. That’s bad screenwriting–unless, that’s what really happened.
Take Lucas, her son, the ten year old. In one of her brief moments of lucidity, she urges him to leave her bedside and go do something positive. So he does; starts talking to people and collecting the names of people looking for family members. And he manages to unite one Swedish guy with his son. That’s great stuff–very compelling. It takes up five minutes of the movie, and then Lucas stops doing it entirely. Like a real kid would actually do. In a movie, that’s bad screenwriting. In real life, that’s amazing–what a ten year old!
Plus a lot of the movie is at the hospital, where Lucas and his Dad and the two little boys keep narrowly missing each other, until finally, as the boys’ bus is pulling out and Dad’s ride leaves, at the last possible second, they see each other, and run to embrace. It’s a powerful moment, and takes up at least ten minutes of the movie. But we see Thai Red Cross volunteers taking down names. Eventually, they would have been reunited. So it’s like, a major plot point in the movie is that that they find each other, miraculously, impossibly, they meet at the hospital, and are finally together again. Instead of a couple weeks later.
All the way through, this happens; it looks like the film is setting up something, which then fizzles away. But that’s reality. Our actual factual lives aren’t structured like movies. That meeting scene’s amazing–so what that it would have happened later anyway. We start things and don’t finish them. We make sudden irrational choices, and then wish we hadn’t. We find ourselves in a position to really make a difference, and then we get sick and nearly die and can’t help anyone. This movie decided to tell the real story of what actually happened with this family. Except for everything about them.
Is it worth seeing? Oh, heck yes. It’s really powerful. Among other things, it tells the story of how brilliantly Thai first responders and medical practitioners handled an emergency that must have completely overwhelmed their available resources. A lot of the movie is set in a hospital, and it’s crammed full of patients–they’re putting people in closets, in cots on their lawn. And we don’t see their triage procedures, but we sense that they’re really coping as best they can, and that every one of those patients is going to get the best care those Thai doctors can possibly manage. They save Maria’s life, despite her requiring two surgeries, and while I wouldn’t necessarily want to have surgery in that cramped and crowded environment, by doctors who are clearly beyond exhausted, they do manage to save her.
It’s also kind of an uncomfortable film to watch. But maybe something as vast and horrifying and unimaginable and can only be comprehended in tiny chunks, like this. Maybe it helps, to see people who we rich Americans kind of relate to. It is, in any event, a powerful viewing experience. And one I’m still trying to get my head around.