Perspective. We've all seen those optical illusions in which two identical circles seem to be of different sizes when they are juxtaposed against smaller or larger squares. It's all about perspective.
That's one of the points made by the film The Impossible, the true story of a family caught in the devastating tsunami that hit the Asian coast on the day after Christmas, 2004. As the Belon family fly into Thailand on Christmas Eve, they worry about normal things. Henry (Ewan McGregor) is certain that they have forgotten to set the security alarm as they left their house, and he worries that their belongings might be gone when they return home. Maria (Naomi Watts) and young son Thomas (Samuel Joslin) panic as turbulence makes the plane bounce. Sons Lucas (Tom Holland) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) squabble as young brothers are wont to do. Later that day Henry confesses to Maria that his job is threatened by an up-and-coming coworker. "How will we survive if I lose my job?" he wonders.
It's natural to worry about these kinds of things, of course. Under normal circumstances, people would be foolish not to worry about protecting homes and jobs. And children, for that matter. When Maria mentions to a hotel worker, "I'm a doctor, but right now I'm staying home to raise the boys," the worker responds with a smile, "Oh! You've been promoted."
But when the circles of financial insecurity and airline turbulence are pictured beside the gigantic squares of a 9.1 earthquake and its raging tsunami, perspective changes. Suddenly the circle of family is the only one that matters.
The Impossible is emotionally intense, ranging from gutwrenching to heartbreaking to heartwarming as the tale of devastation and survival unfolds. The Belon family is relaxing beside the hotel pool on a sunny day when the debris laden flood suddenly engulfs them, sweeping them in different directions. Underwater scenes of the flooding are dramatic and claustrophobic, conveying well the sense of panic one would feel while drowning. Miraculously, Maria and Lucas emerge from the flood near one another, and they frantically struggle to stay together as they are pushed forward by the rushing water. Maria is badly hurt when her leg and chest are gashed by debris. When the water finally subsides, we see that the back of her leg is torn to the bone and the skin of her thigh is hanging like a slab of meat. She needs help. But so do thousands of others. And they are the lucky ones. They're alive. We see scenes of survivors looking desperately for loved ones at hospitals and makeshift refugee camps, even searching through piles of corpses. Just to know.
Other values change as well. Certain commodities cannot be replaced. Cellphone juice, for instance. In a disaster like this, everyone wants to call home, hoping that other surviving family members will have done the same thing. By leaving messages with family back home, they might be able to locate those others who survived. In this film, several people have cellphones, but no one has a way to recharge the batteries. Consequently, cellphone power becomes irreplaceable — and irreplaceable commodities become priceless. Money becomes virtually useless, because money's only true value is in the commodity or service for which it can be traded. So how can one obtain necessities?
After the tsunami subsides, Henry meets a couple near the hotel who have not been hurt by the flood or separated from their loved ones. They just want to get home. When Henry asks to use the man's phone to call his father-in-law and see if Maria has tried to contact him, the couple refuse. "We only have a little power left, and we need it for ourselves," the man says. And he's right. Under the circumstances, I might react the same way.
Later, however, Henry meets Karl (Sonke Mohring), whose family is also missing. Both of them are desperate, lonely, and afraid. Karl has a phone with a small charge left. He offers Henry his phone. Money is useless, but trades are still made: Karl offers compassion, and Henry pays with gratitude. It seems to be a fair exchange for both. Meanwhile, those who were least hurt by the tsunami needed neither compassion nor gratitude. They could afford to hoard their juice, and no one commandeers their phones.
In the end this is a film about what matters. And what matters is not home security alarms or jobs in office buildings but family. The bond between Maria and young Lucas as he becomes the caretaker of his badly injured mother is tender and heart wrenching. The desperation felt by Henry as he searches for his missing family, and the grief expressed by others whose families are lost forever, is intensely moving. Bring a hanky. In fact, bring several.