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Review: The Impossible (2012)

The Impossible (2012)

Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona

Premise: A British family vacationing in Thailand is caught in the 2004 tsunami that devastated the Thai coastline. The family members struggle to find each other in the aftermath.

What Works: The Impossible is a well-made story of survival and its first half is excellently executed. This movie is distinctly different from some of the other spectacles of destruction that have been released in the past few years like 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow. Those movies were intended to be rollercoaster rides in which the audience was awed by grand visuals of destruction. The Impossible does have some remarkable images but they aren’t designed with spectacle in mind. Much of the movie is shot from the point of view of the family members as they struggle with the overwhelming power of nature and when the filmmakers pull back for wide shots it is usually for the specific purpose of dwarfing the characters against the landscape. On a technical level The Impossible has a lot going for it. The flood sequences are so well shot and staged that at no point do they draw attention to themselves as visual effects and these scenes also use sound, or the absence of sound, in some very smart ways. Another element that distinguishes The Impossible is how visceral it is. The images of people wounded in the flood and tending injuries or dealing with sickness in the aftermath manage to be more horrific (in the true sense of the word) than many of the horror movies that been released recently. The reason The Impossible is so impactful is partly to do with the filmmaking style but it is also because the moviemakers focus on the people involved. Every scene in this movie is staged with the characters in mind. On the outset that does not seem extraordinary but when compared to many Hollywood disaster movies in which characters are secondary to the special effects, The Impossible stands out in its commitment to its characters. Two of the actors in this film deliver terrific performances. Naomi Watts plays the mother of the family and she is very exposed here both physically and emotionally. Also impressive is Tom Holland as her oldest son. Of all the family members, Holland’s character is given the most to do and he is the only one who grows as a character over the course of the story.

What Doesn’t: As well-crafted as The Impossible is there are a number of fundamental problems with it, especially in the second half. The tsunami hits early on in the running time of the picture, so there is little time spent establishing the characters. As a result the family is very generic. There is no substance to the marriage or to the relationship between the parents and their children. The movie relies on the audience to fill that in with their own automatic reactions to seeing a family in peril but this comes to hurt the film later. As arduous as the experiences of the family are, they do not seem to have been changed by those experiences and that undercuts the movie, especially when the filmmakers try to elicit a sentimental reaction in the ending. The storyline here is very simple: a family is separated and must get back together again. That search is very underwhelming and it relies on a lot of coincidences. Tonally The Impossible becomes difficult to take. There is no rise and fall of emotion. Once the tsunami hits the movie turns the hysteria up to eleven and it and stays there. The actors are constantly sobbing but after a while that barrage of sentimentality becomes numbing.  There is another problem to The Impossible in its very design. This film is based on a true story about the 2004 tsunami that killed thousands of people and displaced many more but the filmmakers focus on the perils of a Western family on vacation. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing but for a movie that takes place in Thailand, the Thai people are curiously absent. Even scenes at the hospital and other public places are conspicuously missing Asian characters and instead are populated almost solely by Westerners. This comes across a bit crass especially considering how devastating the event was on the region.

Bottom Line: The Impossible has some very good cinematic craft and a couple of impressive performances but the movie is so histrionic that it becomes overwhelming in ways that don’t help the film. Despite its significant problems, it does succeed as a survival story.

Episode: #423 (January 20, 2013)