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The Impossible

A few years ago, at a roundtable interview with novelist Kazuo Ishiguro for the adaptation of his Never Let Me Go, someone asked him why the characters in his story—children raised to be organ donors—tolerated their fate when they could have escaped. Ishiguro said that some people would certainly fight that fate, but this was a story about people who did not.

I try to remember that when questioning the actions of characters in a movie, that it makes more sense to get involved in the story I am seeing instead of looking for a path not taken. But sometimes it just can’t be done.

The Impossible is based on a true story of a family that was enjoying Christmas on at a resort in Thailand on December 26 2004. That was the day when a tsunami hit, killing more than a quarter million people and rendering unimaginable devastation.

The members of the family are separated by the wall of water (in a sequence lasting 10 minutes on screen that was primarily created without digital effects.) Wife Maria (Naomi Watts) and her adolescent son Lucas (Tom Holland) find safety in a tall tree, saving another small child on the way. But she has been badly injured, and Lucas must take responsibility for finding help. What has happened to father Henry (Ewan McGregor) and the two younger boys is something Maria tries to put out of her head.

Without giving away any more of the story, I will say that the film, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage), is gripping but not unbearable, for the benefit of those of you who worry about the horrors with which movies sometimes confront us these days.

But as I was watching the struggles of this family, well-to-do world travelers (and Spanish in real life), I couldn’t help but think about the larger story that the film only assumed. Was there something about these them that made them more worthy of attention than the millions of other people displaced by this, an event so enormous that it still staggers the imagination? They’re hardly typical of the tsunami’s victims, which may have included many tourists but were primarily people in Indonesia, India, and Thailand.

A film on a subject like this inevitably runs the risk of trivializing real events. The Impossible may be a skilled and suspenseful film and an accurate presentation of one family’s trauma, but I don’t see how any viewer empathetic enough to care about them could not feel frustrated by being shut off from the larger story around them.

Watch the trailer for The Impossible

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