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The Christmas lights are shining: The Bennett family welcome December 25th, 2004 alongside fellow holidaymakers on a Thai beach. (Photo: Entertainment One)

So Much More Than A Disaster Movie

A roaring sound fills the black screen. In fact it fills the whole cinema. Perhaps not since Buried (2010) – interestingly, another Spanish co-production – has such nerve-shredding tension and fear created through noise alone both opened a movie and captured the sheer horror of a situation.

The question, of course, on The Impossible’s dvd release is whether the terror of 2004’s Asian tsunami and its aftermath for one European family can be maintained on a far smaller screen. Except the point about The Orphanage director, J.A Bayona’s retelling of one family’s incredible against-all-odds true-life survival story is surely that it is so much more than a disaster movie. And an in-your-own-home calm after the storm of the film’s New Year multiplex release enables a more measured view of what we’re watching. (At my local cinema, they had notices on the screen doors advising viewers to turn away should they feel seasick.)

Wrong focus?

For many critics, this month’s dvd release has only heightened their antagonism towards The Impossible’s focus on the plight of some relatively well-off white Westerners in light of a geological catastrophe that took a quarter of a million, mostly low income East Asian lives.

To be honest, this wasn’t something that struck me when I first saw the movie. On second viewing, it seems a somewhat disingenuous complaint. We may as well criticise Apocalypse Now! or Platoon for sidelining the Viet Cong perspective. Or, indeed, given 13 year old Tom Holland’s film debut here as Lucas Bennett is as astounding and memorable as Christian Bale’s in the similarly based-on-real-life Empire of the Sun, why focus then on an English boy’s wander through wartime Japan?

Challenge to global privilege

Spaniard Maria Belan’s memoir on which Sergio G. Sanchez’s Anglicised script is based is the story which happened to float to the surface. That a complete family of five, including three boys aged 10 and under lived through the sheer direct force of such a wave seems an impossible event. (The Making Of extra suggests that, sadly, there was family loss beyond the film’s ending )

For Western audiences The Impossible raises the question of how we ourselves would cope stripped of the developed world securities we take for granted. This aspect of the film reminded me of an American reality show that re-sited wealthy gated-suburbanites to have them make do as early pioneers. There is reassurance again here that for all our global privilege, this family dealt admirably with the harsh challenges that flooded their way.

Christmas contrast

It is of course pure coincidence that the tsunami struck on Boxing Day, December 26th. The Impossible is a Christmas film for that reason alone. (It would be a brave and perhaps insensitive cinema programmer who would choose to screen it in a yuletide season.) Yet the seasonal festivities only add to the contrast of what we know is to come.

Families holiday at this exclusive Thai beach resort beyond the forest at this time of year partly because of the very promise of Christmas. They countdown to midnight and let free their Chinese lanterns into the night sky. This is a prelapsarian time where Christmas morn in the Bennett holiday bungalow is captured on video (by Ewan McGregor in his first role as a Dad), with small boys clambering excitedly out of bed to follow a trail of chocolates that takes them out to their presents on the veranda.

There appears no Christian content to the festival per se but the religious grammar infuses its portrayal. This is the family celebration before the slaughter of the innocents. Yet more so, the sunshined frollocking in the pool and snorkelling among the brilliant coloured coral, even with parental worries over jobs and finances, can be read as a Genesis-type Paradise from which all shall be flung. It is under extreme duress that we see what this family is worth and are reminded of what is important about being human.

Astounding and captivating

The breathtaking tsunami sequence remains an astounding piece of cinema. The dvd is impressively informative about how such a realistic wave was created using small-scale models, and that mother (a tough Naomi Watts) and son (Holland) battle for their lives amidst the torrential flood waters in a huge water tank. Yet such knowledge does not detract from the horror of what we are watching.

It is this coupling of a seriously injured woman fighting for her and her boy’s lives and values which prove the heart and soul of The Impossible. As much as the five actors become a screen family before the disaster, and will be eventually reunited, it is Watts and Holland together who are especially captivating. The Oscar nominated actress deserves credit for putting the fledgling screen actor at his ease through what must have been a gruelling shoot for both of them. In contrast, the other half of the family’s story cannot help but feel somewhat lacklustre though it carries its fair share of emotion, not least Mr McGregor bawling down a loaned mobile to family on the other side of the world.

Hurting humanity

The camera pulls back to stress that this is but one family’s experience amid a mass and confusion of hurting humanity. Even when their insurance company shows up with a private jet to get them all the hell out of there, they carry with them reminders of who they have left behind. It is to Bayona’s credit that he doesn’t let either them – or us – escape that easily.

As with Never Let Me Go (2011), it is the suggestion of what is going on just beyond the camera that leaves a trace of unease:– the mass of unaccompanied young children ripe for abduction; the severe injuries caused to puny human bodies by the washing-machined debris; travellers and locals who simply vanished. But this is also a survival story in which fragile hope, kindness, strength, dignity, support, love, friendship and thankfulness outlast the terror wave. The humanly possible.
The Impossible is available on dvd and Blu-ray.

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