The Impossible (2012): Written by Sergio Sanchez. Directed by J.A. Bayona. Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland. Rated PG-13 for: intense and realistic disaster scenes, bloody injuries, and brief nudity. Running Time: 113 minutes. Based on the true story of a Spanish family.
Rating: 2.5/4 Stars
It’s not easy to review a film like The Impossible, especially one that purports to accurately depict the events of a major natural disaster, in this case the series of tsunamis that rocked the Indian Ocean region in the wake of one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded. A total of 14 countries were directly hit by tsunamis caused by the earthquake, resulting in over 200,000 killed, and millions more injured, homeless, and lost, and resulting in one of the largest international aid efforts in recent history. Even years later it’s hard to grasp the scope of the disaster.
This event of unimaginable death and devastation is the backdrop of The Impossible, which claims to be the true story of a Spanish family that was on vacation in Thailand at the time of the tsunami. After getting hit directly by the first wave, the family of five is literally torn apart, the mother and eldest son being swept in one direction, the father and two younger sons in another. The rest of the film then chronicles how, after coming to and patching up their various wounds, both parts of the family struggle to find out whether the others are alive or dead. Along the way, both the father, mother, and eldest son come across other battered and shell-shocked victims, most of whom are struggling to find missing friends or family members of their own.
There is one major issue that I (and others) have with the film. The effects of the tsunamis were truly global in the scope of its victims. Many of the areas of Indonesia, India, and Thailand that got hit the hardest were immensely popular tourist resorts, particularly for wealthy Europeans, so the list of people affected by the disaster was very international and cross-cultural in its scope. The brunt of the devastation, however, was obviously born by the local populations of India, Indonesia, and Thailand, especially the poor, whose lower-quality homes were more easily crushed by the oncoming waves, leaving untold numbers completely homeless and destitute.
And although that was easily the worst and most enduring of the tsunamis’ many aftereffects, the film zeroes in exclusively (some may say disgustingly) on white, Western tourists. Not a single dark-skinned character is named, or even gets more than a line of dialogue (except for a single Thai nurse). Even the family itself (whose story is genuinely powerful and miraculous) gets a whitewashing treatment- the parents, of Spanish origin, are dark-skinned and dark-haired, but are here depicted by white-as-it-gets Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts.
Now, to be fair, this particular casting choice of two well-known English actors was made largely to give the film a marketing boost, allowing them to write the script in English and have some big names in the trailer. Which I have no problem with, especially since McGregor and Watts are both very, very solid actors, and this movie is no exception. The most affecting scene in the entire film, for me, was when McGregor manages to call his wife’s parents, and has to force himself to admit that he doesn’t know if their daughter is alive or dead. Watts is just as believable as a mother fighting to overcome her own life-threatening injuries while still looking out for the only son she knows is alive (in fact, she’s one of the Golden Globe nominees for Best Actress). .
However, the stand-out performance, as well as the real emotional heart of the film, is newcomer Tom Holland as the eldest son. The main thrust of the film is his efforts to support his mother and find help for her, while being forced to grow up fast and take care of himself with death literally surrounding him at every turn. I plan to keep an eye out for this kid in the near future. His character arc, and how he and his mother deal with their situation is what the film does best, and is the best reason I can give for seeing this film (although I personally wouldn’t rush to see it in theaters).
A Western-oriented approach isn’t the only issue with the film. The plot, while adhering fairly accurately to actual events (from what I understand) nonetheless gives in to a few too many easy clichés and tropes along the way. The whole first part of the film, prior to the tsunami, is dominated by peaceful shots of rich families lounging around luxurious spas, while an undercurrent of foreboding music seems to whisper, “and then they all diiiieeed….”. The eventual reunion of the family (spoilers, by the way) is also marred somewhat by an American Tale-esque montage of the father and sons *just* missing each other as they run around the same hospital. None of these are deal-breakers, and none of my criticisms are meant to detract from either the tragedy of the tsunamis nor the beauty of the family’s survival. But they do distract, if only for a moment, blunting the overall emotional impact of the film.
In the end, I’m still not sure whether or not I would recommend The Impossible. It’s a good film, it’s well-made and well-acted, but I expect a lot of people would end up not liking the film because they believe it minimalizes the true scope of the disaster. To its credit, the film does begin by emphasizing the extent of the tragedy, and reminds us that it is merely seeking to tell the story of a single family, and not to offer an overall statement on the effects of the tragedy. So on that count, I don’t find the film to be in any way insensitive. As far as depicting a single tale of familial survival, and showing the ability of people to offer kindness and compassion in the face of the worst conditions, I found The Impossible to be a strong and moving story of human endurance.