In recent years it seems as though films that rely strongly on the creation of emotional responses in their viewers have become somewhat passé. Dramas made to stir the senses – particularly those that make us experience emotional highs and lows of happiness and sadness – are often examined suspiciously, and are routinely accused of having ‘Hollywood’ endings or, more generally, of being ‘overly emotional’ or ‘too melodramatic’ by audiences and critics alike. It’s almost as if emotion has become a dirty word; something we used to have dragged from deep within us by films in decades past. Generally this is something we have become immune to or don’t want to happen quite so easily anymore, as we are aware that it’s easier to be emotionally manipulated by a cleverer, sleeker, modern Hollywood. Years of gradual honing, experimentation and know-how have led to a new generation of filmmakers and studios who are completely adept at pushing your buttons, and the buttons of a great many other people too. They know what tends to make you cry, they know what tends to make you happy, they know which piece of music is more likely to make you sad, and unfortunately some of these people cynically exercise little restraint when constructing movies in order to ramp up the emotional response and thus attract as many people from whatever demographic they target as possible.
It’s a surprise, then, to watch a film that is as naked in its ambition to elicit an emotional response as The Impossible, and to find that it is completely successful in doing so, easily breaking through my own hard shell and cynical outlook with its intensely moving story of a family of five caught up in the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami in Thailand. That the film is based on the true story of Spanish physician María Belón and her family certainly helps, and it has been meticulously researched by director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) and writer Sergio G. Sánchez. Much of the filming took place in the Thai locations hit by the giant waves and affected subsequently by the tragedy, and Belón was on set throughout, helping Naomi Watts – who plays a British version of the doctor and mother of three named Maria Bennett – for the emotionally and physically-demanding role.
The disaster film remains as popular today as it has always been, but generally speaking it has evolved (or perhaps devolved) as a result of technological leaps made in CGI. In the 1970s and 1980s isolated incidents seemed to be the norm in terms of subject matter: sinking boats, planes in peril, buildings on fire, and the effects appeared to be secondary to the film’s star power. James Cameron’s Titanic changed the game considerably, though, with its sheer scale, tremendous effects and the emphasis on its central Generation MTV love story; since then disaster films have mainly fallen into one of two categories. First of all there are the vast number of post-Titanic blockbusters that concern themselves with an even grander scale, such as Armageddon, Deep Impact, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. These disaster films try to outdo each other in showing a huge amount of havoc and destruction, yet curiously they tend not to be too involving, despite generally featuring a threat to mankind in its entirety. Then there are smaller, more focused disaster films like United 93 which continue to deal with isolated incidents and more closely resemble those classics from the 1970s. (There are of course some exceptions; the dreadful 1997 movies Volcano and Dante’s Peak both sit somewhere in the middle of these two strands. Alfonso Cuaron’s Children Of Men, on the other hand, is a brilliant film about a global epidemic with a very ‘local’ focus.)
Despite plenty of reliance on camera trickery – though not necessarily CGI – for its most important sequences, The Impossible feels like it fits in the latter category, despite the amount of destruction caused by the tsunami on screen. It is completely absorbing and respectfully made; although the sequences showing the wave hitting and the aftermath are gripping, knowledge of the actual events stops us from ever ‘enjoying’ what we see on screen.
Bayona and Sánchez decided to focus on one family, and on one resort, which is understandable given the distance covered by the tsunami after it spread from the earthquake’s epicentre. Though the damage, loss of life and subsequent displacement was catastrophic in Thailand, it was less than that suffered by Sri Lanka and in particular Indonesia, which officially had over 130,000 deaths, although presumably there were many more than that figure. It’s depressingly predictable though that a movie of the disaster concentrates on white, wealthy western tourists as opposed to the ordinary Indonesian, Sri Lankan or Thai people also affected, a point made in this interesting piece. David Haglund of Slate also commented on the issue, stating of the trailer ‘ … The Impossible is, so far as one can tell from this trailer, about the uplifting story of five, well-off white people. Which is not to say that the lives of well-off white people don’t matter. But movies like this one create the unmistakable and morally repugnant impression that their lives matter more’.
Yet Bayona does at least subtly make the point that the tsunami itself did not discriminate at all by showing a body face down in the watery mud and wreckage left behind before following it up with a shot of a near-death fish in a similar position. You could also argue that he is free to make a film from the perspective of white tourists in Thailand as white tourists in Thailand a) exist and b) did have this experience. More baffling however – especially considering the film made over $50million in Spain alone – is the decision to re-imagine the family as Brits.
In this version of events Maria Bennett is married to Japan-based businessman Henry (Ewan McGregor), and following a spot of ominous turbulence the couple arrives at the resort with their three children Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergrast) in tow. They begin what appears to be an idyllic family holiday, enjoying Christmas Day in the sun and lounging by or playing in the pool. Rather than building slowly towards the tsunami scenes, Bayona includes them as near to the beginning of the film as possible, and then concentrates on the aftermath for the majority of the running time.
When the tsunami hits it is filmed in a spectacular fashion. Bayona used some digital effects for the sequence but also filmed real waves hitting miniatures in a water tank in a Spanish studio. Though it is a gripping ten minutes of cinema, only the survivors are truly in a position to say for sure whether it is authentic and accurate; there have been many affirmations that this is the case, not least by María Belón herself. Both Watts and Holland spent around five weeks filming scenes inside a tank, and the physical and psychological demands are writ large across the actors’ faces on screen; they are intense and determined, and this is the high point in an excellent, Oscar-nominated performance by the adaptable Watts.
Watching a dramatisaton of the aftermath is a moving experience. The family is separated by the tsunami, with Henry, Thomas and Simon bruised, battered and unable to locate Lucas and Maria, who are helped to an overcrowded hospital by locals. In some incredibly touching scenes Lucas sets about re-uniting families while his mother undergoes operations, with unfortunate and ironic consequences. Meanwhile Bayona captures the kindness displayed by complete strangers to each other in the hours and days that followed in an honest and non-cynical way. Holland and McGregor both excel as their stories run parallel, the former showing Lucas’s summoning of courage and desire to help, the latter capturing the anguish and fear of a father as he tries to put his family unit back together.
It takes great skill to make a film like this, still relatively soon after the incident itself, and to make it well. A movie made for the purposes of entertainment will never be a fitting tribute to the disaster in its entirety, but importantly a title card at the beginning reveals that this is ‘one family’s story’ – and this incredible tale is relayed movingly, with three excellent main performances. The film is transparent in its attempts to pull at our heartstrings, but by dealing with such a subject surely it is free to do just that. The emotional response is heightened by the even-sadder knowledge that this actually happened. That said, the cynical decision to release the film in the same week as the anniversary of the tsunami was unfortunate, to say the least.
Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona
Written by: Sergio G. Sánchez
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
Running Time: 114 minutes