Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me…
Do not let the flood sweep over me,
or the deep swallow me up,
or the Pit close its mouth over me.
Psalm 69:1-2, 15
And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?
The psalmist was speaking metaphorically in Psalm 69, but the “flood” and “deep waters” were literally true for the characters caught up in the tsunami that devastated the coastlines of 14 nations right after the Christmas of 2004, making a mockery of “Peace on earth…” Over 230,000 people lost their lives in that horrible event. In the psalm the writer is up against human enemies who hate him, whereas in director Juan Antonio Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sanchez’s powerful film, the enemy is the impersonal “deep waters” caused by an earthquake hundreds of miles away from Thailand where the Bennetts and their three young sons have come to spend the Christmas holidays.
Although this will probably be listed with other disaster films, it is really more of a family film, by which I mean one that celebrates the precious ties that love and shared experiences that make each family unique. I suspect that every parent who sees this film will want to hug and kiss their children (especially young ones) in a new awareness of how precious they are.
The film, based on a true story we are told (we see a photo of the real Bennetts at he end credits), begins on the Thailand-bound airliner. Typical of families, Maria (Naomi Watts) has to separate her two older sons because they are not getting along. Transferred to a different suite of rooms at the beach resort, the Bennetts settle into a good time of enjoying the scenery and the waters of the swimming pool and the ocean. But not for long. A huge wave comes roaring and crashing upon the terrified people with a fury that sweeps all away. Maria and her husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) are not together when the wave hits. She is sent crashing through a glass wall. Lucas (Tom Holland) and his brothers Simon and Thomas (Oaklee Pendergast and Samuel Joslin) are in the pool.
The filmmakers’ choice of camera shots brings us directly into the action. During the frightening, chaotic sequence that follows there are more extreme close up shots than in any other film I have seen this year. Juxtaposed with long shots from above the action, the close ups make us feel swept along with the characters. Maria spots Lucas ahead of her, his small head bobbing up and down in the water. She swims frantically toward him. Injured when her body slams into submerged tree limbs (and other objects hit her), she nonetheless at last manages to reach him. Moving along with the water, they eventually come to the area where the waters have created a gigantic swamp. Maria is so injured that it is now Lucas who must help her to walk. They hear a distant cry, which the boy wants to ignore, saying that they have to take care of themselves. Maria insists that they search for the person, and they come upon a toddler enmeshed in a large pile of debris.
The last two thirds or so The Impossible becomes a search film. The camera cuts back and forth between Maria and Lucas and Henry. Maria is so injured that she is taken to a hospital where she undergoes surgery, so it is Henry who is searching for them after coming upon Simon and Thomas. And also Lucas, who in one long suspenseful sequence in the maze of hospital corridors is searching for the father of whom he had caught a fleeting glimpse.
The film is filled with moments of grace, made all the more striking against the huge loss of life and the suffering of those still alive. First is the tender care that Thai villagers render the injured Maria, two old men dragging her to their village where a woman gently washes her terrible wounds. In the hospital, though barely conscious at times and wracked with pain, Maria, a doctor retired in order to raise the children, reaches out to an almost comatose woman in the bed beside her. She says to Lucas that he ought to go and see how he can be of help. Unsure how at first, the boy quickly sees that he can relieve the desperate anxiety the injured patients have concerning the whereabouts of loved ones. He scribbles the names on a scrap of paper, and sets out calling out in the hope that someone will respond. He manages to reunite a father and young son—and if tears are not welling up in your eyes as the boy looks on, then you are a hard case.
However, Lucas’s moment of satisfaction is short-lived, because when he returns to his mother’s bed, she is gone, and the orderlies are bringing in another victim. The overwrought boy screams that they cannot do this and demands to know where his mother is. No one knows, but a nurse takes him in hand and assures him that she will find out.
Meanwhile Henry, having entrusted Thomas and Simon to the care of an adult accompanying a truck load of children about to leave for higher ground, starts out looking for Maria and Lucas. He asks to use the cell phone so he can let his loved ones at home know that he and two of the boys have survived, but the owner turns him down, saying he has to conserve the batteries. A little later another man does allow him to borrow his phone, though he too mentions the need to conserve the batteries. Saying he will keep it short, Henry reaches the relative, but can say almost nothing because his pent up emotions burst forth, convulsing his body with sobs. He hangs up, but the owner, hands him back the phone, saying that he must not leave the conversation that way. This true “gentle man” (I believe his name is Karl) even volunteers to go with Henry the next morning, possibly because he has noticed Henry is limping due to a leg injury.
The Impossible is a testimony that out of the horror of natural disaster emerges the human spirit enabling victims not just to survive, but even to triumph over their circumstances. The only note of selfishness we see in the film is the man refusing to share his cell phone. If there was looting of the dead, we are not shown it. It is the many unselfish acts, of victims and caregivers alike, that the filmmakers celebrate. My only quibble is that nowhere do we see the faith that motivated the psalmist. People respond out of their goodness. This lack might be due to the filmmakers, or it might be that the Bennetts also are typical of our secular age, one in which, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out so long ago during a man-made dark period, the modern person can get along perfectly well without “the hypothesis of God.” The film is thus a testimonial to the claim of another of the psalms, that humanity is “a little lower that the angels” (or God), and are “crowned them with glory and honor.” (See Psalm 8.) However, as the credits began, all I could think to say was “WOW!”
1. What differences do you see between this and other disaster films? What meanings do you see you in the title? Would you believe some of the happenings were it not that this based on an actual family’s experience?
2. How did the use of so many close ups shots affect your experience while watching the film? Or the camera moving from a close up to reveal the details surrounding the characters—such as at the hospital? (A technique well used in the Gone With the Wind scene of the wounded soldiers—from showing a few to a wide shot revealing hundreds and hundreds.)
3. Of all the characters Lucas probably develops the most: how does he move from self-concern (when he urges his mother not to go looking for the child calling out) to the young man reaching out to others in the hospital?
4. What are the moments of grace that you see in the film?
-Marie insisting on searching for the child.
-The Thais villagers caring for Marie.
-Marie trying to comfort the woman in the bed next to her.
-Marie asking Lucas to try to help the other victims.
How is this good for him, as well as any he might help?
-Lucas connecting a father & son.
-The Thai nurse looking out for Lucas.
-Karl, loaning Henry his cell phone—twice.
-Karl accompanying Henry on his search for his family.
-And of course the hundreds of disaster volunteers, doctors, nurses and aides.
Preachers and teachers might find some good illustrations in the above.
5. Some have faulted the film for dealing with a European family rather than a family of the over two hundred and thirty thousands Asians who perished. Do you think this is legitimate, revealing our cultural and racial bias?
6. Some members of the group might raise the issue of God and disasters. How is the old dilemma—either God is all-powerful and responsible for such disasters, or God is not all-powerful (and if not, is he God?) and thus not responsible for natural calamities? (Remember the quotation from Archibald McLeish’s J.B., a play about Job, “If God is God He is not good,/If God is good He is not God;// Take the even, take the odd…” ?)
7. In reference to the above, how might the words of the apostle Paul in Romans 8:28 help a believer deal with the issue. (Look especially at the J.B. Philipps or the older RSV