THERE’S A fundamental indignity in being one of millions of survivors of a natural disaster. Apart from the obvious tangible experiences of being dragged along a debris-filled ground by strangers and the necessity of having to beg for the basics, there is the enduring fear of being reduced to a statistic. Fittingly, The Impossible ends with Lucas Bennett (Holland) removing a label they put on him at a hospital to identify him among the thousands of children, as his mother, branded on her arm, looks out of an aeroplane window to take in, for the first time, the enormity of the destruction. Until that point, their experience of the tsunami has been one of personal survival, fighting against the elements and all odds in the hope of making it through this and finding each other, preserving the family unit that Bayona used as his protagonist in the critically acclaimed The Orphanage as well. The Impossible is no 2012-style disaster fetish movie, as the tsunami’s path of destruction is shown more as a perilous foe rather than an excuse for neat special effects. Based on a true story, as the opening titles unnecessarily stress, the Bennett family is separated when the wave interrupts their Christmas vacation in Thailand, and mother (Watts) and eldest son Lucas are taken, while father (McGregor) and the two younger sons dive into the hotel swimming pool to take refuge.
Though the family-in-peril trope is the primary thrust of this film, the idea of its relationship with others facing the same battle is explored as well, providing it with an underlying humanity. This is done primarily through Lucas, who Holland plays with extraordinary maturity. The 12-year-old, possessing the juvenile selfishness of the eldest child, reluctantly helps save a child he does not know and later, while his mother lies dying of an infected wound, goes around the hospital trying to reunite families. Meanwhile, McGregor’s character has to rely on outside help to find his wife and child, help from strangers who set aside their own personal tragedies for fleeting moments to lend him dying cellphones or by pausing their own desperate hunts to give him time to find them.
The film has its flaws (Watts’ schizophrenic performance, the lack of focus on local tragedies), but The Impossible is one of the most honest and haunting disaster films in recent times.
Ajachi Chakrabarti is a Correspondent with Tehelka.