Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I don’t write pans very often. My main mission as a film critic is to shed light on efforts I believe are worth people’s time and money to see. I don’t like to be unkind to the people who may have worked hard to get a film made and distributed and believe in what they have done, even if I think they missed the mark. But more than anything, bad movies do not inspire me. Writing isn’t easy when you can’t warm to your subject.
Nonetheless, sometimes I find it instructive to deconstruct a bad film so that we can all understand better how a production studio can take a truly singular event and regurgitate it as a hollow, craven bid for box office by reducing it to the lowest common denominator.
I’m going to do something a little different with this review, and I beg your indulgence. I’m going to quote a rather long passage written by ee cummings that brilliantly critiques a very famous publication that, despite the decline of print, is still a world favorite. The publication’s name is never revealed, but I’m sure you can figure it out. I believe that the formula outlined in this part of one of cummings’ “Non-Lectures” (original punctuation preserved) can be applied very usefully by the discerning moviegoer:
”Now listen” the subsubeditor suggested “if you’re thinking of working with us, you’d better know The Three Rules.” “And what” my friend cheerfully inquired “are The Three Rules?” “The Three Rules” explained his mentor “are: first, eight to eighty; second, anybody can do it; and third, makes you feel better.” “I don’t quite understand” my friend confessed. “Perfectly simple” his interlocutor assured him.
“Our first Rule means that every article we publish must appeal to anybody, man woman or child, between the ages of eight and eighty years—is that clear?” My friend said it was indeed clear. “Second” his enlightener continued “every article we publish must convince any reader of the article that he or she could do whatever was done by the person about whom the article was written. Suppose (for instance) you were writing about Lindbergh, who had just flown the Atlantic ocean for the first time in history, with nothing but unlimited nerve and a couple of chicken (or ham was it?) sandwiches—do you follow me?” “I’m ahead of you” my friend murmured. “Remembering Rule number two” the subsub went on “you’d impress upon your readers’ minds, over and over again, the fact that (after all) there wouldn’t have been anything extraordinary about Lindbergh if he hadn’t been just a human being like every single one of them. See?” “I see” said my friend grimly.
“Third” the subsub intoned “we’ll imagine you’re describing a record-breaking Chinese flood—millions of poor unfortunate men and women and little children and helpless babies drowning and drowned; millions more perishing of slow starvation: suffering inconceivable, untold agonies, and so forth—well, any reader of this article must feel definitely and distinctly better, when she or he finishes the article, than when he or she began it.” “Sounds a trifle difficult” my friend hazarded. “Don’t be silly,” the oracle admonished. “All you’ve got to do, when you’re through with your horrors, is to close by saying: but (thanks to an all-merciful Providence) we Americans, with our high standard of living and our Christian ideals, will never be subjected to such inhuman conditions; as long as the Stars and Stripes triumphantly float over one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all—get it?”
In fact, The Impossible tells just such a story of death and devastation and succeeds in adhering to The Three Rules with impeccable fidelity. The film is based on the true story of a Spanish family of five vacationing at a luxury beach resort in Thailand who were caught in the 2004 tsunami that killed 273,000 people across Southeast Asia. The recreation of the tsunami in the very resort where the family stayed provides an adrenaline rush for everyone from the eight-year-old fed on superhero movies to the 80-year-old who is addicted to The Weather Channel’s killer storm programming. Rule number one: check.
The family, to a person, somehow managed to survive, and their appearance on the red carpet with Naomi Watts and the rest of the cast at the film’s London premiere fulfills rule number two: anybody can do it. If you or I had been swept up in a tsunami, we surely would have been able to survive, too, and get the 15 minutes of fame Andy Warhol and our certain publication promised we’d all get sooner or later. In fact, we’re entitled to be on a red carpet!
The final rule is fulfilled in the choice the producers made to recast the family as the Anglo Bennetts: Henry (Ewan McGregor), his nonpracticing doctor wife Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). I have no idea if the Bennetts are American, British, Australian, or some mix-and-match combination, and that seems intentional. The dialogue is specifically vague about where home is for this family who travel to whatever country Henry’s employer sends him. This choice thus offers the largest target audience for the film assurances that the white, English-speaking race survives because it deserves to. The fact that the tsunami occurred the day after Christmas, allowing the film to show the Bennetts celebrating the holiday, further fulfills the tenets of rule number three.
Once all the rules are snapped into place, the film can afford to embellish the drama with a few cheap moments of tepid emotion. We get the grief-stricken father, fearing his wife and oldest son are dead, staring at the red (of course) ball his youngest son got for Christmas being kicked around by the Thai heathens. We get to watch the badly injured mom being dragged along the ground by an old man who is mumbling in Thai—can’t he see he’s hurting her? But then Mom gets the royal treatment by the natives, who pack her carefully onto a truck that passes by other victims by the roadside and takes her to a hospital where it seems most of the patients are non-Thai. All I could think is that these Thais were resort employees and the hospital reserved for foreigners. The natives who wouldn’t be able to fly away to better care, intact homes, and plentiful clean water and food get one very brief moment of remembrance, as Henry, ridiculously searching for Maria and Lucas at night with a flashlight, briefly illuminates some photos of a Thai family strewn in the mud.
The film is loaded with laughable clichés and false drama. Eventually, the Bennetts all end up at the hospital, but miss running into each other over and over again. Maria is removed from her bed while Lucas goes off to help mainly white people look for their relatives; no one seems to know that she was taken to surgery, so Lucas gets to furrow his brow in the orphan tank until the film tries to wring a fake grief out of us with a nurse bringing Maria’s personal effects to Lucas to identify. The resort idyll, the happy moments of opening Christmas presents in paradise and playing in the pool, are floated to contrast the slowly dawning awareness signaled by the sound of thundering surf that disaster is about to strike—it quite reminded me of the last happy moments of the family about to be ripped asunder in the melodrama A Fool There Was, circa 1915!
It almost goes without saying that none of the people in this film emerge as real human beings. McGregor is given a moment to break down on the cellphone generously offered by another displaced white person who has lost his family, and milks it for all it’s worth. Watts tries on the unattractive appearance look that won her friend and compatriot Nicole Kidman an Oscar for The Hours (2002), but sadly, in my mind, I kept thinking she was Kidman. Tom Holland gives the most full-bodied performance in the film, and I commend him for trying to be real in such a calculated scenario. He seemed personally embarrassed that Watts had a couple of boob shots thrown in because, well, people’s clothes get torn in tsunamis, and so, well, we can show a little skin and feel righteous about it. This is film paint-by-numbers at its cynical worst, sinking any chance to help people understand and empathize with human misery on a grand scale. After Superstorm Sandy, Americans especially would have been better served by a real look at disaster to help them cope.
The end of the cummings Non-Lecture gets the last word:
“I get you” said my disillusioned friend. “Good bye.”