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Home » Culture and Criticism

The Impossible and the white light

Submitted by on January 2, 2013 – 3:12 PM8 Comments


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.




  • Rachel says:

    I HATE when movies manipulate me into crying through cheap devices. It’s like Marley and Me. A dog dies at the end, so of course I will sob and sob and sob. But I will sob at any dog dying. It’s still a bad movie, and I’m mad that it made me cry.

    I will not be seeing The Impossible.

    I can’t decide if playing Obi-Wan must have felt like the highest achievement possible or the lowest, but I agree that either way it seems like Ewan McGregor has stopped trying to find interesting roles and act them well.

  • Elisa says:

    I’ve been meaning to watch this. I cannot find it. Did you catch it in the theater or on DVD?

    Also, Ewan McGregor is one of my favorite actors, but I also have to agree with you. Something is just not the same. Did you see Ghostwriter? Not too bad in that one, but this is no Moulin Rouge Ewan McGregor anymore. Sad times. :(

  • Sandman says:

    It’s as though, after Obi-Wan, some sort of fire went out.

    I’m tempted to remark “Well, how could it not?” here like you wouldn’t believe.

    After seeing Hereafter, and being underwhelmed by Damon (or rather, by what Damon was called upon to do), the tsunami/natural disaster porn weeper hybrid genre doesn’t hold much allure for me, I’m afraid.

  • Abigail says:

    This is the second bad review I’ve read of a film that seems to be getting largely positive press. (Here’s the other one, worth a read: I wonder if the emotional impact of the tsunami and its aftermath simply turns critical faculties off?

    As a parent I know I would be easily manipulated by this, and yet still pissed off, and who needs that. Someone let me know when there’s a tsunami film from a SE Asian POV.

  • Lindsay says:

    Thanks for saving me from this one, Sars!

  • Jaybird says:

    When I first heard about this one, I was torn between “Ooohh, I bet that’s compelling” and “No thanks, just watching the footage of that thing hitting the shore and just pounding down everything in its path has left me with a fear of the ocean, plus I can’t handle kids-in-jeopardy or families-separated-by-horrors anymore”.

    Guess which reaction is winning?

  • Turbonium says:

    Yes; it sounds like this one is, in its way, as by-the-numbers as a Michael Bay “Transformers” film. And–as with those films–the makers genuinely believed in what they were doing, which makes it all the more upsetting that they couldn’t tell the difference between authenticity and artfully-presented cliche.

    Plus which there’s the fact that the original people this story was based on were…not white. It’s not a racist thing (other than the default stereotype-pushing racism so ingrained in Hollywood’s cliche-fallback methods that they don’t even know it exists). But, I mean, right from the get-go they were not part of the local people, but if they are changed to be the same race as the majority audience then the story inherently focuses on them in a way that wouldn’t happen if everyone in the movie were not white.

  • Erin W says:

    I DO have a problem with the white privilege narrative of this movie. I also have a problem with the fact that there is a shot in the trailer which is a plot spoiler. Put it this way: if you wonder if Watts will survive to be reunited with her family, don’t.

    Also, what did happen to Ewan McGregor? I just saw the mediocre Salmon Fishing in the Yemen where he AGAIN plays the saddest of sacks. He seems to be aging quite nicely, and it’s not like these dishwater roles are making him more money than he would get being more interesting. If he’s consciously choosing them, he is choosing wrong.

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