This article contains spoilers.
Dan Kois: Hi Laura! My positive review of The Impossible, the new movie based on a Spanish family’s survival story during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, is competing in the marketplace of ideas with some super-destructive pans. The most notable was written by Devin Faraci for Badass Digest, who says the movie “deplorably milks human tragedy for awards season buzz.” So what do you think, Laura? Is The Impossible deplorable?
Laura Helmuth: Reprehensible! I haven’t seen the other negative reviews so I hope I’m not repeating too much what everybody else is saying, but yeah, it’s offensive in dozens of ways.
Kois: Dozens?! That’s so many ways! Give me the biggest way it’s offensive.
Helmuth: It’s hard to get past No. 1, which was represented by the tagline in the trailer: “Nothing is more powerful than the human spirit.” Because one thing that is more powerful than the human spirit is a motherfucking tsunami that kills a quarter of a million people. I was willing to think that the tagline was something dreamed up by the marketing department and the movie wouldn’t be that triumph-of-human-spirit-y, but it is.
Kois: So do you feel like a tragedy like this is basically off-limits to Hollywood? Or is there a version of The Impossible that you could imagine not being completely offended by?
Helmuth: I think the mix of Hollywood emotional manipulation (horror-show graphics, dramatic changes in volume, horror-show techniques like having the audience see things that the characters can’t see, etc.) does cheapen the tragedy. But the worst Hollywood-ization of the story was that it was about tall, skinny, white people. A film about a Thai family would have been much less offensive.
Kois: Well, here’s where I get into my biggest argument with Impossible-haters. I would love to watch a movie about a Thai family that survives the tsunami! But as it happens no Thai family has managed to meet producers, sell their life rights, interest stars, or get the movie made. We can decry the systematic global problems that make that the case, but that’s not the fault of this movie.
Helmuth: But this movie is about one of the worst catastrophes of our lifetimes, one that hit only a few Europeans. It’s fundamentally misleading to make it about white people.
Kois: Saying that this movie is only inoffensive if it stars Thai people suggests to me that the actual trauma suffered by the actual family whose story this is was somehow less authentic because they were on vacation at the time.
Helmuth: And, for the record, the original family was Spanish, and these people look and sound more Scandinavian.
Kois: But that’s just what I’m saying! Now we’re dealing in shades of brown. The actual family was not brown enough to be an authentic story of tsunami suffering. And Naomi Watts is not brown enough to be an authentic version of that Spanish lady. But c’mon! Thousands of vacationers died! Thousands more had their lives forever changed!
Helmuth: But these people did not lose their lives. That’s also fundamentally misleading. It’s a happy ending! If there’s a film about any one event in recent history that should not have a happy ending, it is a film about this fucking tsunami.
Kois: Are you really getting angry at a movie for having a happy ending?
Kois: What’s your counterproposal? By definition a movie that accurately reflected the actual experience of the tsunami would indeed star only South Asians, and it would end after 15 minutes as every character is instantly killed.
Helmuth: Yes. I am angry at this movie for having a happy ending. It is utterly offensive that this movie has a happy ending. But that is just No. 2 in the offensive files! In no particular order, just so I don’t forget it, how about the gratuitous scene of a sun-dappled and nekkid Naomi Watts putting on a bikini? Hollywood, come on.
Kois: Wait I can argue for that from an artistic standpoint! I thought that shot was in the movie to contrast with the later scene when her son is suddenly shocked to see that her top’s been ripped off. I mean, yes, it’s probably gratuitous, but that’s European-style libertinism, not Hollywood T&A.
Helmuth: Uh huh.
Helmuth: So, we gotta talk about the crying, I think. By the way, for being fundamentally wrong about the entire film, your review was terrific.
Kois: Thanks! Whose crying? My crying? Sure, let’s talk about it. Were my tears hollow because they were tears for white people?
Helmuth: No, genuine! I cried too. By the way, I was watching this in the office yesterday and bawling my eyes out when who stopped by? Our boss. Thanks for making me look real professional.
Kois: I actually think Plotz is probably a real crier. He runs hot!
Helmuth: He had to look away when I told him what was on my screen.
Helmuth: I don’t think anybody could avoid crying, but it’s such a cheap cry. Anybody who was ever separated from her mommy in the grocery store when she was 4 years old would cry at this movie. You see extended scenes of a kid watching in agony as his mom is battered and swept away by deadly flood waters. It’s the most primal tear-jerker there is.
Kois: I guess I don’t mind cheap tears.
Kois: But you don’t think there’s value in seeing the ways that people responded and helped each other in the wake of the tsunami? For me that was the real lesson of this movie. All those (Thai!) doctors and nurses and surgeons working their asses off nonstop for hours.That guy with the teeth who dragged a screaming Naomi Watts to safety. And the people Ewan McGregor met—who didn’t want to stop at this hospital, because they were searching for their daughter. But they did! They hated it, they were pissed—but they stopped!
Helmuth: True! Everybody should read A Paradise Built in Hell for more on how people are generous and resourceful when faced with tragedy. This is the best message of the movie. And Lucas being so resourceful was another tear-jerker and a powerful message. (Even though he’s white.)
Kois: But nevertheless if you had your druthers this movie would be buried in a deep dark hole.
Helmuth: I’m no censor. Bad art wants to be free.
Helmuth: But, yeah, in the world of movies that could be made, this one should not have been a contender.
Kois: Look, I can’t say I disagree with you. I just think that given the unpromising and, yes, culturally objectionable source material, this movie is extremely artful and moving. And in the end I’m gladder that I watched it than I would be if it hadn’t been made in the first place.
Kois: As a white person, I learned things about myself, I guess.
Helmuth: The thing is, and I know this is the science editor in me talking, there could be interesting films made about the tragedy. Did you know that cheap shrimp killed people? Shrimp farms are made by cutting down mangrove forests, and mangrove forests absorb a lot of tsunami power. The waves’ impact was worse where there were no more mangroves.
Helmuth: OK, that’s not something for Hollywood, now that I type it out.
Kois: In a world … where a tsunami was coming … ONE MANgrove … STOOD IN ITS WAY.
Helmuth: I’d pay good money to see that one!
Helmuth: But if you break it down, this film has all the elements of a soap opera: disaster, missed connections, families split apart, a deathbed reunion. If only it had a love triangle, it’d be like a month’s worth of The Young and the Restless squeezed into two hours.
Kois: Right! The fact that that soap-opera idea sounds awesome to me is perhaps a reflection on my taste.
Helmuth: This movie is an exaggerated case of slumming. The family goes to an exotic location, eats spicy food, endures a horror, then flies home and dines out on it forever by making a movie.
Helmuth: All they suffered was a bum leg and five cases of PTSD.