The Impossible and the white light
Treed by the Boxing Day tsunami, seriously injured vacationer Maria (Naomi Watts), her tween son Lucas (Tom Holland), and an equanimous mystery toddler named Daniel (Johan Sundberg) divide a can of Coke. The rest of Maria and Lucas's family, the two assume, has perished. An infection is well underway in Maria's leg. The sun beats them. After an indeterminate time, locals appear to lead them to help, and the film from that point on declines to do anything interesting with one family's journey through a catastrophe, opting instead for sentimentalist (natural-) disaster porn.
The rendition of the wave itself, its terrifying and insensible speed and destructiveness, is extremely well done, but in the service of what? Flashbacks to Maria, unconscious, floating to the surface towards the sun, a huge receiving white light — of course. Lucas, told by his mother, "You've got to go and do something; go help people," actually doing so, heroically reuniting fathers and sons, instead of rightly telling Maria, "Mum, I know exposition established that you're a physician, but we're in a closet at an understaffed field hospital and Dad and my brothers have probably drowned, so with due respect to your sepsis brain, that's a big old ixnay" — of course. (That sequence is awful, lovely, and done flawlessly by Holland. It's also cheap and not credible.) Dropped sound to indicate shock; bittersweet strings to guide us towards the correct emotion — of course.
One bit in particular stands in for the timidity of the whole. A middle-aged local man (La-Orng Thongruang), shirtless and businesslike, hauls Maria out of the endless tsunami low-tide bog and into what we presume is his home encampment. Women come, squeeze water from cloths into Maria's mouth, gently re-dress her and Lucas. Maria weeps at the relief of being mothered. Then she is laid out on a door and loaded onto a truck, the shirtless local in charge throughout, and she and Lucas proceed to the hospital, heaped-up lost hope along the shoulder the whole way. But the editing doesn't stay on the shots long enough — a sequence that cuts between Maria's anguished face and the shirtless local's determined one haloes him in sunlight, which is an irritant, and doesn't hold on either long enough to give us a point of view. And isn't the story of these locals more interesting? What spared them? How many clothes should they be saving for other stranded, broken foreigners? Ditto the door — was it put by for that purpose? Is this the shirtless local's selfless act for the day, or one trip of many he'll feel bound to make?
The story chosen for The Impossible is true, and allows Watts to wear impending-gangrene makeup and cry weakly, but we already know she knows how to do that, and the story is a missed opportunity for innovative narrative that wastes excellent child-actor performances. It has a few provocative scenes — two children, shot through a hole torn in a roof, may or may not be in heaven — but just as many that manipulate or drag. I did cry once, but I resented it, that the "audience member with a little brother" nerve had been clinically teased out, then flattened under a slide cover. Ewan McGregor turns in another underwhelming performance; I really like that actor, we know what he can do, and I don't see why he isn't doing it lately, but I wrote a couple years ago re: his role in Beginners that he seemed at sea, and it's still the case. It's as though, after Obi-Wan, some sort of fire went out.
The tsunami had a hundred thousand stories, at least. I don't take quite the issue other critics have with the selection of a story about privileged white folk; nor is it necessary for said story to have ended differently (read: more distressingly) to be more exciting or worthwhile. But if I can think of half a dozen movies I'd rather have watched, just about the shirtless local? The filmmakers aren't asking enough from the concept, or themselves.
Tags: cheap cheap dial-a-cliche Ewan McGregor Johan Sundberg La-Orng Thongruang movies Naomi Watts The Impossible Tom Holland