Image via galaksi.
In times past, going to see a disaster film involved sitting through a number of scenes designed to make you bond with a main character so you cared when a building collapsed on them in spectacular fashion. While the narrative was an essential device to place your characters in the path of mild peril, an emotional commitment wasn’t required as long as the White House blew up in the first twenty minutes.
For a while, it looked as though CGI would provide the answer to all our questions. What would it look like if a massive tsunami hit New York City? Could John Cusack outrun an exploding volcano in a camper van? Is it possible to render an alien unconscious with a single punch? The only limit to what we could watch was the imagination of Roland Emmerich. What could possibly go wrong?
The tsunami strikes Ao Nang, Thailand. 26th December 2004. Image via wikipedia.
Well, it turns out that in the disaster genre, CGI had a built-in redundancy no one saw coming. The mobile phone age has brought with it the ability to record events as they unfold before your very eyes. Not just your adorable puppy climbing down the stairs, or your friend jumping into an icy swimming pool and failing to break the surface, giving himself a lifetime of backache and the world a good laugh, but disasters too. What’s more harrowing than watching a wall of water come across towards that character you’ve spent the last half hour getting to know?
Watching a wall of water rushing towards the person who is holding a mobile phone. And knowing that it’s real and he or she is just about to get hit.
Footage of the 2004 Asian tsunami approaching populated islands in the Indian Ocean was shown around the world in the days after the event. Harrowing first person accounts soon followed and documentaries about the disaster, which killed over 230,000 people, were broadcast.
This was the problem that faced director Juan Antonio Bayona when he was making ‘The Impossible’. Even working with a first person account and the most advanced technology around, could he make a film that conveyed anything like the emotion and fear those shaky, cheap films and haunted faces did?
I wasn’t optimistic. Apart from the reported disquiet voiced by numerous victims ambushed by the trailer when it appeared in cinemas ahead of ‘The Hobbit’, I understood that the family upon which the story was based were actually Spanish, but would be portrayed by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, “in order to create a universal film in which nationalities were irrelevant to the plot“. What else might be deemed irrelevant to the plot? The narrative? The acting? Everything but a massive, perfectly rendered wave?
No. In fact, the wave, although beautifully handled, is the least harrowing part of Bayona’s film. ‘The Impossible’ actually flips disaster movie convention on it’s head by using it’s money shots to supply a contextual framework which strips the actors of anything but their ability to convey the horror of their individual experiences. Watts shines, as does Tom Holland, who plays the couple’s eldest son Lucas. The clarity and depth of their emotion towards one another as the story unfolds is central to the viewer’s engagement with the movie.
It’s not just the actors that make this film so intense an experience though. Bayona’s touch is light but deft as he sketches out the sense of futility one faces when left injured, utterly helpless and separated from loved ones. The camera lingers here and looks away there, wringing every last drop of emotion from each scene. His logistical decisions are flawless too – we’ve all seen the footage of water pouring through streets, pulling down palm trees, lifting up cars and destroying everything in it’s path, so instead of travelling on the surface with Watts and her eldest son as they are dragged from their luxury hotel, Bayona forces our heads down into the maelstrom of debris hurtling along with them, smashing into their bodies as they frantically try to grab onto anything left standing. It’s a minor detail but hugely effective and utterly exhausting.
In fact, I felt like I’d been through a wringer by the time the final credits rolled. And rightly so. Watching a film depicting an event that affected the lives of countless millions should be bloody harrowing.
It’s merely confirmation that Bayona has done his job, and done it well.