2.5 / 5 stars
The size and scale of the historic tsunami that hit Thailand in December 2004 was unthinkable, destroying visiting families and local communities, all the more tragic due to its holiday timing. An event of such massive impact deserves a hell of a lot more consideration than the thinly drawn, manipulative The Impossible. Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona knows how to recreate the details of a disaster; but he also wants to yank tears from his audience when his screenplay, by collaborator Sergio G. Sánchez, doesn’t earn it. (Click on the movie poster for a larger version.)
The fact is, this fact-based film about a family who fights for survival after getting separated by the violent waves, has similar DNA to a Hallmark Channel feature. (And some of those TV quickies have more solid character development than you’ll find here.) The movie leans on familial connection in an against-all-odds story focused on both breaking and warming your heart. What really separates The Impossible from its thematic brethren? Money. Enough to spend on special effects, large-scale set design and top actors (Ewan McGregor, doing a fine job; Naomi Watts, excellent in a primarily physical role).
But the cash and technical prowess is not enough to overcome a script that wants to wallow in its teary emotions while seeming structurally disconnected. To push the audience’s buttons, Bayona detaches a family of five, illustrates their separate perils, and then wants us to passionately root for their reunion when they suddenly get close to crossing paths, in a final act that seems tacked on and tidied up.
Despite some impressive tension and shock during the tsunami’s swell and some sincerely human moments, the bulk of The Impossible just feels kind of cheap. When McGregor, as a father of three, loads his two youngest boys onto a pickup truck with strangers so he can hunt for his missing wife, Bayona is turning the emotional screw–yet we’re not given much reason to believe the dad would split with his kids. Should we buy into this plot development simply because it really happened? Would we believe it if the filmmakers hadn’t introduced the movie with a message saying this is one family’s true story, fading out all text so just “true story” remains on the screen? True. Story. Yeah, okay, we get it.
It’s not enough to let the movie off the hook. There’s still a responsibility to the audience to portray the depth of such an ordeal, which The Impossible initially does when Watts’ Maria, battered and literally torn up, is forced to somehow navigate the waters and detritus back to civilization with her oldest son (a steady new, young actor named Tom Holland). In those scenes, and in a sequence that follows in a local hospital, pure instinct takes over the characters and the film, and it’s easy to be astonished by Maria’s perseverance and the son’s ingenuity. But when plot details intervene, The Impossible loses its natural feel, satisfied with just unnerving the audience or turning on their waterworks.
The biggest disappointment is the idea that The Impossible is Oscar bait, a simple story of a well-known incident, with lead actors that voters would feel quite comfortable nominating for awards. (Watts has already been recognized by the Academy with a nomination for 21 Grams). If, in the course of either producing or marketing The Impossible, that became a focus, then the film is more than just a letdown, it’s exploitive.