Monday, 2 December 2013


“Altruism is innate, but it’s not instinctual. Everybody’s wired for it, but a switch has to be flipped.” - David Rakoff

Movies based on true stories capture the public’s imagination and contrary to biographical dramas that exult famous public figures, the scenario based on true stories of ordinary people tend to be rather more engaging and generate more interest in the movie-going public. We watched precisely such a film last weekend and we were kept glued to our seats. The added interest in this movie was the disaster theme, which unfortunately was a true horrific occurrence.

The movie in question was the J. A. Bayona 2012 film “The Impossible” starring Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland on a story by Sergio G. Sánchez and María Belón. It is based on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, following an undersea earthquake that occurred at 00:58:53 UTC on Sunday, 26 December 2004, with an epicentre off the west coast of Sumatra, Indonesia. The quake itself is known by the scientific community as the Sumatra–Andaman earthquake. The resulting tsunami was given various names, including the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, South Asian tsunami, Indonesian tsunami, the Christmas tsunami and the Boxing Day tsunami.

The earthquake was caused when the Indian Plate was subducted by the Burma Plate and triggered a series of devastating tsunamis along the coasts of most landmasses bordering the Indian Ocean, killing over 230,000 people in fourteen countries, and inundating coastal communities with waves up to 30 meters high. It was one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history. Indonesia was the hardest-hit country, followed by Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand.

The movie is the story of a typical family, Maria the mother (Watts), Henry the father (McGregor) and their three children, Lucas (Holland), Thomas and Simon. They travel to Phuket, Thailand to spend their Christmas holidays relaxing in a brand new seaside resort. After settling in, they go to the pool, like so many other tourists. It is a perfect vacation in paradise-like surroundings, until a barely heard distant noise becomes a deafening roar. There is no time to escape from the massive tsunami that obliterates all in its path. Maria and her eldest son are swept one way, Henry and the two other children another way. The film follows the fate of all in the post-tsunami disaster zone.

The real family that the main characters of the film are based on is the Belón family and are in fact Spanish but were living in Japan at the time of the Tsunami. The film changes the nationality of the family to British. However, the real family were present on set during the whole shooting process. They were giving tips, especially to Naomi Watts who was portraying Maria Belon. The whole family also attended the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in 2012.

The film has amazing CGI effects and stunts, great cinematography and solid acting. These good points tend to work with the interesting story to balance out some lapses and one is temporarily restrained from asking too many ethical questions – these come out later, on reflection. The devastation and tragedy of such an epic destruction can only be sketched out by a film that concentrates on one family’s experience. The toll on the native population is hardly hinted at and the victims we see are mainly white and privileged. There is even an element of white-washing, in terms of converting the real Hispanic family’s origins to an upper class British family. This is puzzling as the film was produced in Spain, but perhaps it was aiming at the sympathies of the Anglocentric world, where most of the box-office profits would be made.

The film is poignant and heart-warming, because it focusses the immense tragedy on the experiences of one family. While their plight is personal and intense, it raises a more universal sympathy, especially as the family is both the recipient as well as the giver of kindness in the face of adversity. In fact, altruism is one of the main themes of the movie. The young Tom Holland, playing Lucas, the eldest son steals many of the scenes, while Naomi Watts does a great job of the severely injured Maria, the mother. A harrowing film in many respects, but nevertheless well worth seeing.

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