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Review: Overwrought 'The Impossible' Drowns In A Sea Of Melodrama

Reviews
by Kevin Jagernauth
December 21, 2012 11:05 AM
12 Comments
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Naomi Watts The Impossible

If "The Impossible" moves viewers to do anything, it may be to upgrade their life insurance policy to cover injuries due to tsunami. Following a wealthy family who encounter undeniable hardship, they are also blessed with the kind of luck and good fortune that only happens in the movies (or to people who can afford it). Except as director Juan Antonio Bayona takes great pains to tell us, this is Based On A True Story (with the words "true story" then left to linger on their own before the movie begins). While that may (almost) forgive some of the more happenstance developments in the film, it doesn't excuse the overbearing emotion and narrow focus of this overwrought picture.

We are introduced to the Bennetts as they land in Thailand and settle into a fancypants and very expensive resort hotel for Christmas. They didn't get the third floor room with a sea view they reserved (bummer) but instead get upgraded to a much nicer beachside villa (membership has its privileges we guess). We get a few little character details -- father Henry (Ewan McGregor) is a worrier who might be losing his job, while his eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) is an aloof pre-teen with no time for his little brothers -- but all that is forgotten once disaster strikes.

The Impossible Tom Holland

And indeed, the tsunami sequence is both technically accomplished and truly terrifying to watch. Bayona has definitely done his research, with the biggest danger not just the water itself, but power of the tide and the debris that flies along with it, making survival not just about making sure you're still able to breathe, but that you're not fatally struck by any number of objects being carried in the surge. The Bennetts are essentially split, with Henry and the two smallest children Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) off in one direction, while Lucas and his mother Maria (Naomi Watts) spun off in another.

If there is an Oscar for moaning in pain, Watts will certainly be a lock. A good portion of the first 40 minutes of the film are dedicated to Maria either screaming for her son, or being in total agony as she nurses a leg that has been severely punctured by a tree branch. As she hobbles along, Lucas takes on the leadership role of sorts, and the duo take a stray Swedish child, Daniel (John Sundberg), with them as well. Taking refuge in a tree, they are eventually spotted by some locals who get the injured and increasingly weak Maria onto a truck, and bring everyone to a nearby hospital that is teeming with various victims of the tsunami. Lucas understably stays doggedly by Maria's side, but is encouraged by his mother to look after others who need assistance as well, and he begins to spend his time helping people who are looking for their loved ones in the hospital.

The Impossible Ewan McGregor

The second half of "The Impossible" switches focus to Henry, who has managed to find Simon and Thomas, and remains in the vicinity of the resort. But after days of searching for Maria and Lucas, he puts Simon and Thomas on a truck to safety, while he stays behind to find his wife and son. He teams up with another man searching for his family (Dominic Power) and together they begin to hit every shelter and hospital they can, in the hopes of locating their children and spouses.

It's hard to describe just how manipulative and over-the-top Bayona's picture tends to be, but it's safe to say there isn't an emotional beat that the director doesn't sledgehammer just once. At least half a dozen times, one member or another of the Bennett family vulnerably says "I'm scared" or "I'm scared too." Moments of uplift or heartbreak are not just punctuated by Fernando Velázquez's score, but drowned in it, while the screenplay trades in the kind of heart-tugging sentiment that this real life tragedy doesn't deserve. From the opening moments of film which features a black screen and the omnious roar of waves, to the very last frames that swell with strings as the Bennetts look down on the destruction they've survived, Bayona doesn't seem to trust the audience to understand the magnitude of the tsunami on their own.

The Impossible Naomi Watts Tom Holland Ocean

While some have questioned turning the Spanish family of the true story into Brits in the film, we understand that the particulars of film financing probably makes it easier to get money for a movie if it stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. But it's not comprehensible that the filmmakers have mostly left brown faces in the background, except for one nurse who happens to get a few significant lines. Even the folks Maria and Henry bump into along the way tend to mostly be white. For a tragedy that hit the residents of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand hardest, it's a bit baffling that any screen time isn't given to displaying how citizens who don't have insurance plans or comfortable homes in foreign countries to fall back on are left to survive. Perhaps that's a different movie entirely, but to not even acknowledge it is a serious oversight that hampers the picture.

There is another version of "The Impossible," a much more subtle one, that can tell the story of the Bennetts while also expanding the scope to chronicle the wide ranging and long lasting devastation the tsunami left in its wake. This isn't it, obviously. But unfortunately, even viewed as a straightforward tale of survival, "The Impossible" strikes an insincere tone, one that doesn't let the obviously powerful moments stand on their own, but instead follows the beautiful Hollywood stars to safety, while the real story is left on the ground. [D+]

This is a reprint of our review from TIFF.

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12 Comments

  • Alan B | May 12, 2013 1:27 AMReply

    God, this review is insulting! Kevin Jagernauth can barely write a news piece without appearing ignorant and shallow, so the idea that he's taken it upon himself to be THE MORAL GUARDIAN FOR ALL NON-CAUCASIANS is a joke. There are many approaches to art criticism, but "this movie is bad because it's not the movie I wanted" isn't a valid one. The approach is egotistical, obnoxious and says far more about the critic than it could ever possibly say about the film.

  • David | January 15, 2013 7:17 PMReply

    This review sucks balls. I've been in a perilous situation similar to this in SE Asia, and when you're in it, the last thing on your mind is "man, these locals don't have flood insurance, now THAT'S a real tragedy." My biggest complaint with this movie was the score (it goes way overboard, piling on the melodrama), but these characters and the scope of this story are both genuine and true. Impressive. If you'd like a more sweeping account of the tsunami's impact on that entire region, I believe there was an HBO movie years ago that would service that need. In the meantime, this is a story about one family being torn apart by a force of nature and trying to survive the aftermath long enough to find each other again. Again, I wish the score didn't end up undermining the drama by being such a self-parody. The story and performances are visceral enough.

  • kal | January 15, 2013 6:19 PMReply

    It was the story of one family's experience of what happened. It wasn't a film about the disaster as a whole. Having been to the area a year before and being a father, I found every minute of the film utterly compelling and harrowing. Whether the family were Spanish or British is neither here nor there; those things happened to that family and it was 'impossible' how they all found each other. Again it was their story and it was extremely well told. This was not insulting to anyone. The film makers didn't have them stay behind and help because it didn't happen. They had travel and health insurance- well send them to hell! What ridiculous comments.

    Should we also criticse Paul Greengrass and United 93 for not focusing on the thousands who died in the towers rather than the passengers on the plane?

  • stacey | January 14, 2013 12:38 PMReply

    i completely agree with Kevin Jagernauth. i was definitely moved by the entire movie and thought the special effects were great, but being southeast asian and having experienced a massive flooding similar to the tsunami... As i watched the film throughout, i couldnt help but feel a lot of pain for all the locals who didnt have insurance and privileges the white family had. especially when they rushed maria through the hospital and she got a private room. in a normal circumstance during a tragic time in a country such as thailand - that would never happen! the hospital would have been much much more chaotic than that and finding space to operate is rare.

    another thing that annoyed me, was in the last 10 minutes after maria gets out of surgery - the family is greeted by a fancy suited representative from their insurance company and rushed to to a private jet with first class seats!

    as they were walking towards their private jet, lucas notices all the chaos still happening around them. i thought if this movie had any sense of ethics, they would have lucas say "wait! lets stay and help!" so the audience can really see the tragic and real truth about the event.

  • Mary | January 6, 2013 6:56 PMReply

    Oh and the other man searching for his family was not portrayed by Dominic Power (who is also in the film, just not in the role that this massively flawed and inaccurate, under researched article says he is). The other man I believe is played by Sönke Möhring.

  • Mary | January 6, 2013 6:49 PMReply

    I thought the film was great. The film focuses on a real story with characters based on real people. The reason it didn't focus on the locals is because wasn't about the locals. Obviously what happened to locals and for that matter everyone affected matters but you can't put all of that in a film. It was about one family and what THEY saw and experienced not what we all saw in the newspapers. I agree perhaps other stories should be told, but in a different film. Also this is massively insulting to Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, suggesting they are only in the film because they are attractive or because they are Hollywood stars, regardless of the fact they both happen to be outstanding actors at the absolute top of their profession.

  • justsaying | May 12, 2013 1:04 AM

    So they got on a private jet with many open seats after asking for help from everyone....how American. Of course this film was nominated for several awards. Help me but @#%# you!!!

  • Cruella | January 3, 2013 7:50 AMReply

    no escaping the fact that focussing on white middle class people in this film is somewhat insulting to the area its set and the locals it mainly effected in such a devastating way. Who are they supposed to relate to when they watch this movie?

  • JOHN | December 21, 2012 2:35 PMReply

    So the review basically is "The lead cast are white people so I can't care about them." Yikes.
    I thought the film was great and the first 30-40 minutes are some of the most powerful I've seen. Brutal stuff.

  • Wallace | December 21, 2012 12:41 PMReply

    I think anyone who isn't moved by this movie should get their chest checked to make sure they actually have a heart.

  • Wallace | December 21, 2012 1:07 PM

    If by manipulative garbage, you mean ACTUAL true story about a tsunami that ACTUALLY happened and all the surrounding devastation it brought with it, then yes I am guilty.

  • bwaters | December 21, 2012 12:45 PM

    Anyone who is moved by manipulative garbage probably gets suckered by every con man they run into.

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