Published on: February 9, 2013
I was more than a little surprised to find when I got back this weekend from seeing J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible that there was not much controversy around it. It has been largely received positively by critics, receiving several nominations from various awards organizations. Any negative criticism seems to be coming from the perception that the film is a bit formulaic and tries too hard to be a feel-good film with such dark subject matter. The reviewers who complained about it, however, were few and far between. Most of them lauded it, and most of the praise went to Naomi Watts’ performance, which I considered to be a fundamental lesson in overacting. So if there’s anything I can say for my review by way of introduction, it is that it is certainly not going with the consensus.
Based on a true story, The Impossible centers around Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria Bennett (Naomi Watts), who are on a winter vacation with their three sons – Lucas, Tomas, and Simon – in Khao Lak, Thailand, a resort area. They celebrate a nice Christmas together, only to be shocked the next day by a sudden, intense tsunami. Maria and Lucas manage to survive together and make it to a hospital, where Lucas helps people find missing family members. The two assume the rest of their family has perished. However, Henry, Tomas, and Simon have indeed survived, and have stayed around the ruins of the resort. Henry leaves the two boys so that he can go look for Maria and Lucas, hoping against hope that the family will be able to reunite.
My most major issue with The Impossible was not, in fact, the formulaic nature of the story, though that was certainly noticeable. Rather, I could not help thinking about the classic Hollywood issue of not characterizing foreigners as much as its protagonists. I feel that the portrayal of Thai natives here is more problematic than, say, Argo’s Iranians. Those people may have been shown to be excessively evil and hateful of Americans, but the fact remained that the time in which it was set was indeed a dangerous one for Westerners to be in Iran.
Contrarily, I remember the 2004 tsunami very vividly, and I recall it ruining thousands of homes, families, and lives in several countries, not just Thailand. The natives in The Impossible are shown to somehow not be suffering like those poor Europeans, with the implication that they have less to lose. A big point is made in the film’s (annoyingly brief) introductory scenes to show just how much STUFF the vacationers had before the tsunami, especially since the disaster happened the day after Christmas. So of course, the less economically stable native Thai people are free to essentially be drivers, getting wounded Westerners to hospitals. Personally, I find the implication of servitude to be more bothersome than an exaggeration of the malicious intent of people for the sake of a flimsy, mainstream plot.
The film has two saving graces: the first is the style. Several sequences, including one in which Maria recalls the tsunami hitting when she goes into surgery for a wounded leg, showcase fine artistic vision and add some dimension to an otherwise flat story. The audio is also especially effective, particularly in the opening scene, in which the plane in which the family is headed to Thailand is experiencing turbulence. The other saving grace is Ewan McGregor. Even in the most average of films, McGregor brings a magnetic charm to the screen. And, in contrast with co-star Naomi Watts’ overbearing screeching and screaming, his grief feels almost tangible.
Ultimately, there are as many reasons to see The Impossible as there are not to. If I had to make an official recommendation, I’d say save your money and rent or stream last year’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. It’s slightly less mediocre and Ewan McGregor gets more screen time.