Friday, January 4, 2013

Talking Points: The Impossible (2012)

Tragedy can strike anytime, anywhere, without warning. Of course that’s obvious, but it’s one of life’s immutable truths that we can’t seem to get our heads around, no matter how keenly we understand it. The Impossible is a film about the cataclysmic tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004. The earthquake which caused the tsunami was the third highest registered earthquake ever on the Richter scale, coming in at around 9.1. Waves reached as high as 30 meters in some of the affected regions, which is roughly 100 feet. The effects of the earthquake and resulting tsunami resonated globally, causing the entire planet to shake. It destroyed buildings, cities, families, lives. It is reported that 230,000 people lost their lives.

To tell this story in a traditional narrative had to be an overwhelming task, not just because of the scale of the disaster, but because of the long list of disaster films that have preceded it. Most, though, were merely excuses for spectacle at the expense of revealing the underpinnings of emotion, like Earthquake (1974) or The Perfect Storm (2000). The most recent film to tackle a tsunami was Clint Eastwood’s spiritual drama Hereafter (2010).

The Impossible does what many films in its genre have failed to do, and that’s bring the emotion. This is a highly-charged emotional film, from the electric performances of Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and newcomer Tom Holland, to the John William’s-esque musical score by Fernando Velasquez. I found myself tearing up several times throughout the film. After the fact, though, I wondered how much of my emotion was tied to my personal feelings for my own children and the fear of losing them? Is this film too manipulative? There’s no doubt that it is an effective film, hits all the right buttons, and has a satisfying, happy resolution which will please most audiences. Yet, it leaves me with some questions and thoughts.

Talking Point #1: How well do we really know these characters?

Maria and Henry Belon are vacationing with their children over the Christmas holiday in Thailand. This is their first – and I imagine, last – visit to the beautiful, exotic country. Maria is a doctor, Henry seems like he has a job in real estate, but we learn that someone else has just been hired at his firm in a similar capacity, making him fear for his job. They have three children, Lucas, Thomas, and Simon. Maria has chosen to take a hiatus from her job as a doctor to raise their boys, but now that Henry’s job may be in jeopardy, she suggests that perhaps it is her turn to go back to work. We know that they are doting parents because they spend quality time swimming, dining, and setting off those awesome floating candles we see in nearly every movie set anywhere near India. This is all we learn about them before the tsunami strikes.

Is it enough to make them more than mere audience surrogates? After the tsunami hits, pretty much every character beat involves the obvious choices of crying over loss, misery, fear, and frantic searching. This is not to say that these are not real, or honest, but that I’m not sure there is much to separate these characters from any other characters who might find themselves in similar circumstances. The point of good characterization is to reveal true behaviors in the midst of conflict. There are two moments in the story in which I feel that a character shows something unusual.  

(I’m about to venture into spoiler territory here, so proceed with caution)

The first was when Maria decides, despite having a punctured mid-section and severely lacerated right leg, to help a screaming child. Lucas, the pragmatist, tries to sway her to focus on their own survival, but her Hippocratic oath compels her to help anyone she can regardless of the consequence to herself. This is a moving moment, and has considerable payoff later in the film.

The second moment is when Henry decides to send his youngest children, Thomas and Simon, off with another group of survivors so he can focus on finding his wife and oldest son. It was a decision that felt so strange, so insane, so real, that I was invested in the outcome.

Upon reflection, it seems they are solid characters. I wanted more from them earlier in the film, wanted to know more about them before they were defined by the disaster.

Talking Point #2: The disaster

A disaster film is only as good as the way it films the disaster at the center of its premise. J.A. Bayona, who also directed the remarkably good horror movie (also about an intrepid, persistent mother) The Orphanage, nails the disaster. Combining real life water effects and quality computer work, the tsunami hits the screen with power and horror. You can’t take your eyes away from the look, and his well employed crane shots often pull back to reveal the devastation left in the tsunami’s wake. I felt like I had taken a punch to the gut during the first wave, and as Maria and Lucas found themselves being carried in the wave, I feared for their lives.

This is terrific filmmaking, visceral and engaging. In those moments, I was being pushed along that wave, too. A lot of times when I watch movies, I find myself thinking my way through the story, but the disaster sequence made me stop thinking for a moment and get caught up in the chaos and confusion.

Talking Point #3: The race issue

J.A. Bayona has gone on record as saying that he intentionally did not state where Maria and Henry Belon were from so as to create an universal feel for the story. And the real Maria Belon, in an interview, said something similar, “This movie is not about nationalities, not about races, not about colors. It's about human beings. One of the conditions we put is that there should be no nationality for the family. I don't care if they would be black, brown or green skin. I wouldn't care about anything.”

That’s certainly a great sentiment, yet it’s hard to watch The Impossible and not be acutely aware that you are watching a story about beautiful white people, with beautiful white children, in which they are seeking and getting help from everyone around them. It’s hard not to be aware that the natives of Thailand, who were no doubt just as devastated as the white family, are placed in a background role in their own country. Whether the film intends it or not – and it most certainly does not – it almost seems to imply that traveling to foreign lands is not advisable for white families.

The question of making a story universal is an interesting one. How, exactly, can you make a story universal? My experience with storytelling is that the more specific the story, the more universal it winds up becoming. Specific details about characters, cultures, and societies often help us make connections to our own worlds and therefore create a universal sense. When I watched the Brazilian crime film City of God for the first time, I wasn’t alienated by the fact that the story was specific to Brazilian ghetto culture. No, I found myself caught up in a story of friendship, survival, and betrayal that grew in power the more specific the story became about the world in which the characters lived.

This is, then, my biggest complaint about The Impossible: that it seems whitewashed in traditional Hollywood values. The Belons are Spanish, so why couldn’t they be Spanish in the film? I’m not so naïve as to see that in order to make a film like this profitable, we need stars, and that Spanish language films don’t perform well outside of Spanish speaking markets. But it doesn’t change the fact that I feel weird about watching suffering white people.

The Impossible is still a strong, well-made film. I can’t imagine many people having the problems that I had with it, but they are issues that should be addressed and discussed. Is the film a universal one, in which we are allowed to fully invest ourselves in the painful struggle of a family to reunite in the face of an awful natural disaster, or is it disingenuous by sucking culture out of it and relegating the natives of Thailand to the background in a movie set in their homeland?

One thing is for sure, though, and that is the truth that the only place we can be certain when and where a disaster will strike is at the movies.

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