Director: J.A. Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sanchez (screenplay), María Belón (story)
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
Length: 114 min.
They say planetary communications abolish distance. But the impact of catastrophes still remains inversely proportional to distance: 5000 dead in China are not the equivalent of ten Western lives. In this regard, things are even worse than they once were, since in the past the indifference could be put down to a lack of communications. With that obstacle removed, we can confirm that, beneath the formal solidarity, the discrimination is absolute.
- Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories IV, 1995-2000
It seems the situation has grown worse: global communications now allows the colonisation of the catastrophe, obscuring any vestige of formal solidarity. In its handling of one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history, The Impossible’s reliance on cinematic formula illustrates how this occurs, prompting reflection on western society’s preoccupation with a commonly imagined normalcy. This engenders interest in what is otherwise an unexceptional execution of cinematic melodrama.
The Impossible begins in truly banal fashion. A stereotypical Anglophone expat family flies to a tropical resort for Christmas. Aloft they ponder security left behind: wondering if the burglar alarm is armed, and cringing at turbulence, the twitch of some distant evolutionary fear modernity has consigned to irrationality.
On the ground, our family arrives in a manufactured paradise: an idyllic coastline established so that Westerners might indulge holiday fantasies. All is unfolding as per script, Christmas is wonderful, and then it hits. A tidal wave beyond the scope of comprehension falls upon the resort, sweeping everything before it.
This recreates an actual event in which an estimated 230,000 people were killed in over a dozen countries. Despite my difficulty in comprehending the scale and implication of this event, The Impossible shows no such uncertainty, proceeding in a familiar manner charting our family’s struggles with injury and separation on the march back to the safe predictability of Western modernity.
They are rescued by anonymous Thais who wander in and out of scenes – never finding a place in the plot. They find solidarity and comfort with fellow tourists. And through formulaic music, situations, settings, and direction we are enjoined to share their fear, hope, joy, disappointment, despair, and ultimate relief.
Although the film shows no intention in disturbing contemporary mores, its championing of mainstream tastes holds a mirror to our society, highlighting our flaws should we care to look. Some scenes illustrate the locals’ subaltern role powerfully. Maria’s (Naomi Watts) peasant rescuers, who would ordinarily have no place on the resort, unhesitatingly assist. We could also juxtapose scenes where Henry (Ewan McGregor) searches through the rubble for his wife and child, his torch silently passing over the family photographs of unknown resort staff, with Lucas’ (Tom Holland) efforts to reunite western families, his cries naming the missing, giving them meaning in connection to others.
While these glimpses are poignant they are but a sideshow to the main thrust of the film. In its accurate reading of market sentiment, the film underscores cinematic reliance on genre conventions. To entertain any open approach to this event, real beyond the scope of our collective imagination and thus beyond our ability to represent or own, to allow it to exist simply as a testament to our insignificance before sublime nature, was impossible. Instead the film’s choices serve exclusively to recreate the event and in doing so render it meaningful, knowable, and explicable, thereby accommodating it within contemporary normalcy.