by Scott Mendelson
As a technical exercise and an acting treat, The Impossible is pretty terrific. You want an authentic look at both the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and what it was probably like to actually survive such a thing? Juan Antonio Bayona gives you exactly that. The film is a peerless technical representation of mass disaster and a wonderfully acted melodrama. The big question, and this may well be a deal-breaker for many, is whether one can justify the relative white-washing at play. In short, while the lead family has been altered from Spanish to British (ie - somewhat Caucasian to lily-white Caucasian) the bigger and more disconcerting issue is how the indigenous locals have been turned into cameo players in their own story. I don't know the details of what actually occurred at that exact location in Thailand back in 2004, nor do I know the exact demographic make-up of the affected population at this specific area (that specific area being a new tourist-friendly hotel frequented by traveling Europeans). But it's hard to ignore not only the overt whiteness of the lead family but the film's continual cutting to white victims and white mourners over and over again, while the actual Thailand population is reduced to faceless corpses and proverbial caretakers. That I can possibly look past this in good conscience is due to the sheer quality of the film itself, and my own ignorance of what is fiction versus non-fiction in this allegedly true story.
The plot is painfully simple. A family of five, consisting of Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and their three sons (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, and Oaklee Pendergast), are vacationing at a touristy hotel in Thailand when they are among the countless who are slammed by a massive tidal wave without warning. Maria (Watts) and the oldest song Lucas (Holland) are separated from the rest of the brood, and Maria finds herself suffering from potentially fatal injuries. Henry wakes up and is quickly reunited with his younger sons and, with all of his party relatively uninjured, he sets off to find his missing wife and son. That's pretty much the movie. Maria quickly finds herself in a massively overcrowded hospital, Lucas finds himself in the role of basically being the parent to his possibly-dying mom, and Henry basically has to choose between protecting his children and finding his wife. The storm itself is worth the price of admission if you're into that kind of thing (my wife is absolutely into that kind of thing, which is what motivated our trip to the Landmark). It's a powerfully authentic look at not just the wave and initial devastation, but the aftermath and utter devastation that was left behind. If one can look past the disconcerting idea of going "Wow, awesome!" as a wave kills 250,000 people (which is an argument that can be applied to any 'based on a true story melodrama' of course), then the sequences are special effects masterworks.
The acting by all five leads are frankly terrific, with Watts giving a painfully physical performance even as she spends much of the film on a hospital bed. Tom Holland shines as he struggles with both trying to help the countless other people around him as well as the hopelessness of even scratching the surface of the destruction at hand. The moments of Lucas helping those in need was surely a perfect moment to highlight the suffering endured by the locals, with Lucas paying it forward to the Thais struggling to treat his mother and the many other injured tourists, yet once again director Bayona shines a light onto almost exclusively white faces. Call it cynicism based in theoretical racism, but the underlying idea behind the film's construction is that western audiences wouldn't have been as empathetic if the leads or even the many supporting characters didn't look enough like them. Again, this may in fact be exactly what happened, but this may also be a case where truth is not an excuse for what amounts to a 'watch these poor affluent white people struggle to survive!' drama in the middle of an Asian-based natural disaster. Again had the film not been as effective in telling its specific story, this might well have been a deal-breaker (and it may be for you), but the picture is relatively solid and I'd be lying if I didn't say it worked as it was intended to, hitting the right emotional buttons (there is a key third act moment that will remind you of a major third act beat from The Incredibles) and benefiting from some terrific performances.
It should be noted that the film does one thing very right, which is to never lose sight of the carnage and death all around even as the film emphasizes one family's mere attempts at reconciliation. Whether the main family is reunited and whether everyone survives I won't reveal, but the film ends on a somber note reminding us that most such families did not survive completely intact and that many such searches for familial survivors ended in complete defeat. There is a brief subplot involving a trapped child who Lucas reluctantly chooses to rescue and the happy ending of said story is subtly undercut by the knowledge that Lucas initially intended to ignore said child's cry for help, trading his life for his own survival. This is not a 'a quarter of a million people die so that Ewan McGregor can learn to be a better father' type story and none of the family members are explicit problems that magically resolve themselves during the course of the film (IE - none of the kids have to magically overcome their fear of swimming or any of that hogwash). Even while the film is often pinpoint focused on the leads, it never loses sight of the immense tragedy that unfolded eight years ago and, as best it can, never makes the survival of the our lead family more important than the deaths of the countless other families around them. Had the film not whitewashed its lead characters and/or made more of an effort to highlight the suffering of the less-Caucasian locals, this would have been one of the better disaster movies in recent decades.
As it is, said whitewashing merely takes The Impossible from being among the year's best films to being merely an awfully good one. It still has terrific performances and some of the best special effects of the year, as well as a thoroughly engaging narrative hat works exactly as intended without pandering for emotional release. It is always odd to be 'entertained' by such real-life devastation, although one can levy such a charge against any disaster movie (say, Titanic). Come what may, thorny moral issues aside, The Impossible does what it sets out to do very well and it deserves full credit for it. The film avoids turning the incident in an excuse for certain characters to grow and overcome contrived emotional obstacles. It is merely a powerful look at an unimaginable natural disaster, centered around one family who struggled to remain whole in its aftermath. As such, it is an unquestionable success.