Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jan 05, 2013 2:58 pm 
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Recreating catastrophe, with a feel-good finale

Spanish (actually Catalan) director Juan Antionio Bayona, whose accomplished first feature was the sophisticated 2007 horror film The Orphanage (NYFF 2007), moves to another genre, the disaster movie, with The Impossible. This one goes for and appears to be gaining a world-wide mass audience with its big emotions and realistic depiction of the terrible 26 December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, one of the worst natural catastrophes in modern history. And not only do the computer-generated imagery and the actors' interaction with it recreate the physical aspect, but Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor and the three young boys who play their sons provide a sensitive depiction of the harrowing emotions survivors of such an ordeal must feel. Kudos to all concerned. However, as I walked out of the cinema, emotionally drained, I began to feel something was missing. The problem is that irresistible though it may be to have filmed this experience, maybe to understand its human dimensions it would be better just to read about it, so we can get a fuller account of what went on in the heads of the participants. The more cinema learns to show us, the less it's able to give us the inner experience that alone makes hearing about it enlightening and human.

This is not to fault anybody involved for the effort they put forth.

We may have a limited tolerance for non-stop real horror. I think my ability to pay full attention faded quite a lot once the family had been struck by the waves and split up, 12-or-so Lucas (Tom Holland) and his badly injured mother Maria (Watts) struggled through raging waters, climbed up into a tree, were dragged to a village, and then carted to a hospital; and when Henry (McGregor) and the younger boys, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Prendergast), who were safer, got separated by the rescue operation when Henry sends the boys up to safety so he can continue hunting for Maria and Lucas on his own. The chaos in that hospital is miraculously recreated, but the mind boggles.

But young Lucas doesn't falter. Because he learns selflessness and stands by his mother as she faces near death, Lucas is the real hero of the story; and in the nobility he shows, still combined with a boy's ability to collapse and weep, Tom Holland , who starred in the musical Billy Elliot, is a wonder. When I saw him running around that labyrinthine hospital I remembered Christian Bale in his first great role in Spielberg's Empire of the Sun and wondered if Holland might not have as remarkable a career in store.

When little Thomas and Simon, somewhat by accident, find their father again, and Lucas finds the three of them a minute later and takes them to the hospitalized Maria, the operatic drama of separation and reunion reaches its peak, and all that follows is denoument. And then we have to start realizing this excellent and powerful film's serious limitations as contemporary history. Those who criticize The Impossible as racist or ethnocentric for focusing on a little family of white vacationing Anglos rather than the 230,000 Asian local residents of the region who died in the tsunami and its horrific aftermath, with over a million displaced, are right, of course. But these critics are forgetting that the western news media also at the time focused very much on the Europeans and Americans and Brits caught on posh winter vacations, just like this family. After all, this film is based on the first-hand account of the Spanish Alvárez-Belón family's remarkable survival of the tsunami, in a book by Maria Belón. Only her story gives no idea of all the suffering of the over a million Asians and South-east Asians who were displaced and the 230,000 who died.

What was fine for Maria Belón's memoir, has to come under closer scrutiny when it's turned into an international blockbuster movie. The real problem is that in depicting the 2004 tsunami from the point of view of any single family that survived and was reunited, the movie reduces an immense human and natural catastrophe to a small feel-good tale. Why even bother to recreate this event in such vivid and convincing visual detail, if you're going to concentrate on such a tiny human part of it? And apart from the way, necessarily perhaps given the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, The Impossible gives us action but neglects the inner experience of its principals; and the focus on white westerners and even the financially expedient translation of a Spanish tale to posh Brits to make a mainstream movie with famous movie stars; there are also the limitations of the feel-good trajectory. And, to top it off, the vivid realism of the recreation is undercut by the corny, conventional music that intrudes at every key moment. Scare tactics Bayona uses, like the ultra-silent opening moments and the over-loud airplane sounds at the beginning and the end, are heavy-handed holdovers from the full-on horror genre he practiced earlier.

Despite all these strategic limitations, Bayona is clearly a director with great gifts for the emotionally wrenching and the physically awesome. But whether he has the further gifts and the wider vision necessary to make great films remains uncertain.

The Impossible, 114 mins., debuted at Toronto and opened in the US 20 Dec. 2012; UK release 1 Jan. 2013.

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