Film review: The Impossible
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
There are not many new lessons to be gleamed from The Impossible, a harrowing, detailed re-creation of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Basically, you learn tidal waves are bad and you don't want your family to be caught in one, especially on holiday. Other than that, director Juan Antonio Bayona doesn't have much new to say about the trauma.
Instead, he puts on blinders to bury himself in the task of depicting the minute by minute horrors with exact and clinical detail - victims gasping for air under heavy currents, debris becoming dangerous weapons, and the chaos of a small town overwhelmed by catastrophe. It might be a visual wonder but it's also a pointless exercise in calamity porn.
Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts (above) are a British couple with three young sons at a Thai beach resort when their minor family squabbles are wiped into irrelevance by the tidal waves. In the aftermath, the family is separated with wife and one son washed out to sea and the rest stranded for rescue. An entire continent's immense loss and devastation distilled through the hardships of one white family.
The Impossible has been criticised for whitewashing the tragedy and the complaints are valid. The survivors from which the tale is based are actually Spanish, not English. Meanwhile, the local population is marginalised into wise but primitive natives, a nice Thai nurse and all other Asians merge into a nameless faceless background. It's a compelling but incomplete story. Imagine a September 11 film focused solely on a few Chinese tourists who escape from a mezzanine coffee shop in New York's World Trade Centre.
For viewers in this part of the world, the outsider perspective is reinforced by the framework. It begins with the family flying in by plane, with the turbulence and thunderous engine roar hinting at worse frights to come. It's hardly a spoiler to add at the end the reunited group gets to fly home, return to safety and away from the disaster zone. The privileged escape to a happy ending feels awfully cheap and trivial.
For what it's worth, the actors fully commit to the raw emotions and desperate situations. Watts especially is riveting, and not just because half the flesh on her leg is dangling loose. The film's narrative lynchpin though is Tom Holland as the first son, Lucas, who starts out as a selfish petulant child but is forced by adversity to learn a lesson about humanity. The family reunion then occurs in a colossal coincidence with a sweeping moist-eyed embrace.
However, beyond the visceral impact of the tsunami - which is substantial but who finds natural holocausts to be entertainment? - The Impossible is essentially a standard disaster flick with typical mourning and human frailty covered in everything from earthquake films, post-nuclear apocalypse dramas to Pearl Harbour. An overburdened local hospital strewn with injured and dead? Check. A post tsunami wistful admiring of the beautiful awful scene? Done. A hoary sentimental ode about the bond of love family members endure for one another? Enough, enough.
The Impossible opens today