In 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean caused a tsunami that lead to massive destruction and an estimated 230 000 casualties. Obviously, an event associated with so much death and carnage generates countless stories and narratives, some tragic, others uplifting. Such events expose divides that exist between social and class boundaries, giving humanity a chance to see its own flaws. We can either rise above them or continue to meander in the dredges of flawed social conventions. It is not surprising that this tragic event has led to a film, and when making a film like The Impossible, a host of challenges present themselves before the screenwriter and director. The mastery of the creators of the film is clear. It is an emotional rollercoaster that is also a phenomenal production. The screenwriter knows how to move the audience to empathize with the characters, while the cast is more than proficient at bringing to life the words on the page. The tsunami scenes are among Hollywood’s finest achievements in special effects. But once no longer caught up in the emotional drama of the film, the viewer may begin to notice details that are troubling. In hindsight, viewers might come to feel slightly manipulated by the melodramatic and kitschy aspects of the film.
A key issue is with the family presented. They represent an ideal: A white English family comprised of a very attractive couple (played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) and three healthy young boys. Watts plays Maria Bennett, a doctor turned stay-at-home mom (though no doubt a reflection of the reality of this ‘true story’, it is somewhat problematic that a very talented woman stays at home while her husband works), and McGregor plays husband Hank Bennett. The very well-off couple take their children on vacation to a resort in Khao Lak, Thailand. Though some issues at work are passingly alluded to, this family is very financially stable. Due to the lack of turbulence in their lives, they are not as relatable as one might hope. That changes when the tsunami hits and the family is separated. The mother and eldest son find each other but are carried away from the rest of the family, who, as we find out later, are safe and together. The conclusion of this story, though emotionally satisfying, is a Hollywood cliché. We are left asking: Why this family? Though they go through some dramatic experiences, they are not as drastically affected as many others. Towards the conclusion of the story, a representative from an insurance company whisks them away on a plane and assures them that everything will be taken care of. While gratified that this family has found relief, viewers may find themselves pausing to ask: What about the families without insurance?
The Bennett family essentially comes away with nothing more than a ruined holiday. Their home is not destroyed. Their injuries, ultimately, do not cause serious damage (though some recovery time is required). None of their extended family is involved in the tsunami. What of the indigenous peoples of the lands impacted? Not only are their homes destroyed, but many lose members of their immediate as well as extended families. Those who are injured do not receive the same standard of care as that provided to the Bennett family once they have arrived home. It is perhaps unfair to weigh one tragedy against another, but the Bennett family survive this disaster relatively unscathed, whilst others mourn the loss of their families, their health and their homes. In many instances, severely injured, homeless, jobless and sustaining multiple deaths of those close to them, the people of Southern Asia come away from the tsunami with far more tragic stories than the Bennett family. What we see on screen is certainly uplifting, but many stories that conclude tragically are simply omitted.
Although this tsunami caused 230 000 deaths, we do not, for the most part, see anybody die. We see numerous corpses, which are hidden away in bags (though the film does not shy away from showing graphic images of severe injuries). Nor do any of the major characters discover the death of any of their loved ones. The film is graphic, while also white-washing the event. Sonke Mohring plays a man named Karl. Like Henry Bennett, finds himself without his family. He joins McGregor on his trek to find his family, and when he finally does, Karl is left on his own. We do not find out if Karl ever re-connects with his family, or if he discovers their death. It is likely that he is not reunited with his family, but the audience is spared this tragedy. We are also introduced to a young boy named Daniel who is rescued by Maria Bennett and her son Lucas. He is lost part of the way through the film, though before the film is over we see him reunited with a man who we presume to be his father. We also see Lucas help to reunite a couple of family members, but the film does not explore the lives of those who fail to find their families. One might suggest that since this film is ‘based on a true story’, that this is not the fault of the screen writer or director, but truthfully, these were not even the names of the characters involved. María Belón was the name of the matriarch played by Watts, not Bennett, and her husband’s name was Enrique, not Henry. The filmmakers, who, ironically, are Spanish, chose to anglicize the names of the characters. They also leave out the detail that María lost half of her leg in the course of the ordeal.
In real life, the tsunami caused shortages of food and water. A number of local aid workers were executed, and 1.3 million people were directly impacted. The film does not explore any of these issues. Perhaps a better way to address a tragedy of this magnitude would be through an ensemble cast, one that investigated the event on a local as well as a more global level. What was the involvement of the Thai government, or the effort on the part of countries whose citizens were in danger? What was happening with the hospital personnel or with the police? What was happening to local people? Too much of the focus is on tourists. This is a sanitized Hollywood-esque film (Hollywood-eque because, surprisingly enough, the film is Spanish) that exploits the tragedy, yet it does not come close to reflecting its true magnitude. I am reminded of the film ‘Beyond Borders’, which exploits the struggles of third world countries to create a melodramatic backdrop for a clichéd love story. It’s a dirty trick to use such tragedies to forward an emotive response from the audience (not to mention the fact that any narrative where Black people need white people to fix their problems is going to come across as more than a little insulting). While ‘The Impossible’ is a quality production with an outstanding cast, it ultimately serves as an insult to the people most affected by this event.
P.S. You do get to see one of Naomi Watts’ breasts in ‘The Impossible’, for those of you who care about that sort of thing.