Just in time for the holidays, The Impossible offers up an idyllic Thailand Christmas vacation turned visceral disaster flick with sprinklings of sentimentality. Based around the Indian Ocean tsunami that ravaged Southeast Asia on Boxing Day 2004, the film attempts to mix the old fashion disaster flick thrills of something like Earthquake with the torn family drama that would have tickled Steven Spielberg during his struggling-to-be-taken-seriously run in the late 80s. The film hits all of the dramatic beats and thrill ride peaks you’d expect from mashing those two filmmaking styles together, but sadly Juan Antonio Bayona’s long awaited follow up to The Orphanage also wallows in the sentimental and exploitation pitfalls of those predecessors as well. Constantly sling-shotting between masterful highs and made-for-TV twaddle lows, it’s an awkward movie at best, but one well worth seeing for the 10 minutes of tsunami destruction alone. For all of the fledgling filmmaker’s obvious weaknesses, his skill at organizing spectacle is enough to ensure he’ll be a director worth keeping an eye on for quite sometime.
The movie opens with some nauseatingly cheery set up as Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and their children bask in the sun, exchange Christmas presents, and discuss dead end family problems as clichéd as they are inane. Then on Boxing Day a title wave strikes their Thailand resort in a remarkable feat of physical filmmaking. Using a minimal amount of CGI and a maximum amount of high-powered water tanks, Bayona stages possible one of the most effective natural disaster sequences ever filmed. Bodies, cars, and destination-vacation huts are ripped apart. Stunt men and brave actors flung about like ragdolls with bones to be broken. It’s hard to say exactly what techniques Bayona and his crew used to pull off the gut-punch set piece, but the filmmaking craft is simply astounding. It’s an opening designed to pummel the audience and leave them drained and works about as well as disaster filmmaking can.
Then Watts and her oldest child (played by Tom Holland) come to in the ravaged former resort/new lake. Their fractured family dynamic disappears while struggling to claw and climb back to civilization, with Watts at her whimpering, tortured best (her face skeletal and scarred, her leg torn open into a web of dangling butcher shop flesh). They’re eventually discovered by locals and dragged back to makeshift recovery camps where Watts will spend the bulk of the film vomiting and convulsing on a bed. In the meantime, McGregor wants nothing more than to find his missing family and has to contend with all manner of jerky survivors while looking after his personality-free youngest children. He eventually leaves them with other survivors where they can listen to irritatingly weepy monologues about the nature of life and death as he stumbles through the wreckage, constantly just missing his family until the most dramatic possible climatic moment. While the film’s disaster feels terrifyingly real, the aftermath is depressingly by-the-numbers melodrama.
Bayona might already be a master of technical craft two films into his young career, but his ability to tell a story isn’t quite as accomplished. The filmmaker relies on easy, manipulative melodrama in an attempt to regain the emotional peak of his early disaster climax and never quite finds it. The film is also disturbingly white-washed, recasting the central family in the WASPiest way possible and reducing the locals who actually survived this tragedy to magically kind and heartlessly evil side characters in their own story. I suppose the argument could be made that natural disasters follow clichéd narrative arcs because the problems are all the same, but The Impossible feels like it was written and designed with the maximum commercial appeal in mind, which isn’t exactly the most mature or sensitive approach to staging a genuine tragedy. Still, at least the filmmaker never flinches from the horrors of the event, even when his plot and stock characters tend to take the easy route to whipping up drama.
The Impossible is undeniably a deeply flawed and problematic film, but what works within it is so strong that it’s difficult to dismiss entirely. I’ve waxed on about Bayona’s craft endlessly already and he also gets some remarkable work out of his lead actors. While the set up has a rushed Lifetime movie quality that not even performers of this level can overcome, once tragedy strikes everyone brings their A game. Few actresses do distress as well as Watts and with her spending most of the film is physical pain and emotional anguish, she tears the audiences guts out without stretching out of realism. McGregor does a good job of playing pretend hero under pressure and nails hi cavalcade of emotions, while Tom Holland’s most developed child recalls the pint-sized Christian Bale’s wonderful work in Empire of the Sun in the best possible sense. There’s probably about 40-50minutes of The Impossible that ranks amongst the best disaster filmmaking ever achieved, so the ultimate success of the film comes down to how well you can stomach the cheese. You may gag at sequences (both deliberately and not), but at the very least this film is (please excuse the pun) impossible to forget. Given Bayona’s modest goals with the project, I suppose that qualifies it as a success. Too bad so many commercial concessions were made along the way, because this flick had the potential to be something really special.