The Impossible: access denied

06 January 2013

'The Impossible', in cinemas now, takes as its subject matter an unthinkable event that attracts and denies cinematic treatment in the same instance.

As The Impossible's one-sheets and opening titles tell us, "In 2004 a devastating tsunami hit southeast Asia. This is one family's true story of survival." In the film, all other words disappear but for "true story", that most marketable of oxymorons - the words linger just that little bit longer, as if forming the film's subtitle. Indeed, that this is based upon an actual family's against-all-odds survival amidst the tsunami in question - a result of the third largest earthquake ever recorded - accommodates and apparently justifies all adherence to narrative clichés, complete with a triumphalist arc and symmetrical bookends (we've been here before...). You couldn't make it up; how else is one to tell an unthinkable tale of such incomprehensible terror but in the most accessible and digestible of terms?

That's the conceptual challenge that seemingly faced The Impossible's makers. Firstly, then, replace the original Spanish family who endured and survived the ordeal - María and Enrique Bélon, plus their three sons Lucas, Tomas and Simon - with handsome, English-speaking stars, which no doubt assists funding procedures (it requires a large budget), makes the film an easier sell to those for whom anything but the English language is a turn-off, and allows a very questionable Eurocentricism to be passed off as unproblematic "universalism". Secondly, make the film as readily receivable as possible in narrative terms: don't miss so much as a beat (the musical term is apt for a film that wants from the off to be a melodrama), don't veer at all from the expected course trodden by so many predecessors, otherwise you risk distancing your audience from the string-tugging, gut-churning and heart-breaking innate in the material.

The Impossible has to have it both ways, then. On the one hand, it must respect the human element in order to retain its integrity as a "true story" - or, it needs to vindicate its emphasis of reality by milking for all its worth the threshold such an emphasis allows. On the other hand, though, the filmmakers need to be in love with a cinematic rendering of the tsunami itself: they have to conceive and deliver a spectacle that feels real while at the same time is value for money. As unavoidable as the characters' textbook dramatic arcs, then, is the fetishism with which the film depicts its pivotal tidal wave.

The logistics of narrative economy, of course, dictate that two boxes may be ticked with one stroke: after the preparatory signs of peril (a turbulent plane-landing, an ominous last-minute change from a third-floor room to a ground-floor equivalent), Harry (Ewan McGregor) relates bad news from home to wife Maria (Naomi Watts) with jobspeak and centre-of-the-universe worrying, a marker of their Humanity that is immediately perspectivised when a massive tidal wave crashes into their peaceful holiday resort. The latter, of course, has to be horrific in proportion to previous human faults, has to annihilate all shreds of self-centredness so that the film respects Mother Nature before the Human Spirit rises up again. (But why is Maria's climactic, half-dreamed/half-remembered ascension to the surface filmed like a Sprite advert?)

Director Juan Antonio Bayona, whose crew of collaborators largely remains intact from The Orphanage (2008), privileges himself with a ground-level re-enactment of events, "placing audiences in the moment" from the relatively safe confines of their cinema seat. The subjective perspective allows for an effective and abstract evocation of the characters' bodily fragility, as the underwater current hurls them into objects such as uprooted trees, smashed windows, crushed furniture and so on; the incompatibility of the human body with such inhuman structures is well conveyed. The subjective perspective may also justify why the early scenes of Maria, trying frantically to stay afloat amidst all the carnage, sees no other signs of human life around her other than her son Lucas (Tom Holland). Really?

Watts, in her most gruelling role since Funny Games U.S. (2007), gives one of those "committed" performances, though her Hollywood English grates from the opening scene, and in reality it's the special effects and shaky shock-tilts (onto, for instance, her torn-apart hamstring) that denote Maria's physical resilience. Opposite Watts for much of the film, Holland grows in stature and is by the end the literal link between Maria and Henry, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). Holland's been praised in the way younger newcomers often are (his previous film credit is the voice of a character in the UK dub of 2010's Arrietty), but it's difficult to tell if the dialogue or his delivery is terrible; in fairness, in the several wordless scenes demanding emotional conviction, Holland shows promise.

Make no mistake, though, The Impossible is disaster porn in the same way films such as Hotel Rwanda (2004) might be called atrocity porn. Like the earlier film, this sets up an emotional pay-off only to threaten, like a boy might tease a kitten, to snatch a downer ending from the jaws of euphoria - only, like a reality television judge, to reassert said happy ending all the same. But hey, this is how it really happened. Complaints that aestheticisations of this ilk are at the very least ethically problematic seem as routine as the aestheticisations themselves, but in the final analysis, respecting a narrative by limiting yourself to it makes only respectful but limited art. The contradiction remains: "natural disasters" as much as mass genocides attract and deny dramatic rendering in the same moment, and at the end of it all, one is frankly left wondering what The Impossible's actual purpose is other than to document a will-they-or-won't-they story of fluff.