Is The Impossible Reprehensible?
Laura Helmuth and Dan Kois argue about the new movie based on the 2004 tsunami.
Posted Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012, at 2:09 PM
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.
Laura Helmuth is Slate's science and health editor.
Dan Kois is a senior editor at Slate and a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.