The Trailer for The Impossible Exploits a Horrific Tragedy

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 21 2012 10:54 AM

The Deeply Troubling Trailer for The Impossible

Ewan McGregor in the trailer for The Impossible

Here at Brow Beat we like to appraise trailers, always keeping in mind that these frequently riveting two-minute entertainments may not accurately represent the movies they advertise. With that in mind, I’ll try to withhold judgment on The Impossible, the Ewan MacGregor/ Naomi Watts drama that will arrive in American theaters just before Christmas. The U.S. trailer premiered yesterday, and, given those stars, that release date, and its acclaimed Spanish director, those who watch out for these things discern a possible Oscar campaign under way. Other observers have looked past such crass concerns and described the trailer as “tremendously moving,” “terrifyingly real,” “potently realized stuff,” and even, weirdly, “refreshing.”

David Haglund David Haglund

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

No one, so far as I can tell, has described it as deeply troubling and horribly misjudged, though such descriptions seem far more apt.


MacGregor and Watts play the parents of young children visiting Thailand on vacation in December 2004. While there, a massive earthquake occurs below the Indian Ocean, brutally separating the family. As the trailer makes clear, each of the family members survives, eventually—impossibly—finding the others again.

The characters are reportedly based on an actual family who survived one of the tsunamis that ravaged south Asia that December. And their story, as depicted here, does seem truly incredible, and, on its own, deeply moving.

Transferred to the big screen, however, that story takes on a new context and a different responsibility. Well over 200,000 people were killed by the natural disaster so “potently realized” in this film. There were survivors as well, of course, and some of those survivors were white tourists. But choosing to focus a big-budget movie on such a story feels like a horrible and even exploitative misuse of a devastating tragedy.

Stanley Kubrick supposedly said, “The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.” The Indian Ocean earthquake of 2004 was about the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people and the destruction of homes and lives across south Asia. The Impossible is, so far as one can tell from this trailer, about the uplifting story of five, well-off white people. Which is not to say that the lives of well-off white people don’t matter. But movies like this one create the unmistakable and morally repugnant impression that their lives matter more.

Perhaps the movie itself will prove me wrong; like I said, I am trying to withhold judgment. I’m not finding it easy, though.



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