Looks like the length of time perceived to be a respectful interval between a disaster occurring and a dramatisation of it being available for one to stuff oneself with popcorn in front of has got a lot shorter over the years – it took a few decades for them to make a film about the sinking of the Titanic, but a mere nine years after the devastating South Asian tsunami here we have The Impossible, a harrowing but also strangely toothless account of one family’s ordeal after their holiday in Thailand comes to an abrupt halt on Boxing Day 2004*.
Juan Antonio Bayona’s film starts with some (deliberately?) banal scenes showing a (deliberately?) bland couple arriving at their resort with their three young sons. They settle in to their luxurious apartment on the beach, exchange Christmas presents and lounge around in a dull, but generally easy on the eye, manner with not much in the way of a hint of what’s coming other than a couple of ominous shots that seem to be from the point of view of a deceptively calm ocean. The mother and father are played by troopers Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, who can do this sort of thing in their sleep, but the true selling point of this movie is made clear when a massive wall of water rips through the trees and buildings of the resort without warning, sweeping away the preceding twenty minutes’ comfortable torpor and a slew of skimpily clad Europeans alike. These sequences are extraordinary – presumably they were achieved with much assistance from computer generated imagery, but there’s nothing to give this away on screen: it really does look and feel like a catastrophe on a biblical scale, with cars and wreckage and trees and bodies being roughly and indiscriminately propelled along in raging brown watery turmoil. You can really believe Naomi Watts’ expressions of panic and horror as she witnesses her son struggling to keep afloat out of her reach, and the injuries her character sustains had me recoiling in my seat.
But when it’s over, it’s over. The bulk of the film concerns the family members’ efforts, first to survive and reach safety, and then to find each other, and the action settles into a fairly routine separation/reunion drama. Despite the formidable difficulties the characters face, and the blood, bodies and general desolation that are everywhere in evidence, it all seems a bit too fated to come out well in the end, as though the director was concerned not to serve his viewers too much of a downer. Everyone we meet comes across as saintly and noble and self-sacrificing, and there’s a confluence of happy coincidence at the resolution that’s not really convincing. An onscreen title emphasises the point that this is a true story, and I’m sure the specifics of this one case are faithfully presented, but for every family who eventually came through the event intact there must have been several who suffered bereavements – this may be a true story, but I doubt it’s a particularly representative one, and the producer’s decision to change the family’s nationality from Spanish to English also speaks of a desire not to present too much of challenge to its intended audience. It’s a shame, given how impressively both the catastrophe and its immediate consequences are realised, but I guess most people don’t go the cinema because they want to get depressed.
* actually, thinking about it, there was an HBO TV miniseries Tsunami: The Aftermath which screened as early as 2006, but I think the current film is the first to really go for a full-on depiction of the event, disaster-movie style.