Sunday, January 6, 2013

In Theaters: THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012)

(Spain - 2012)

Directed by J.A. Bayona.  Written by Sergio G. Sanchez.  Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Geraldine Chaplin, Sonke Mohring, Ploy Jindachote, Johan Sundberg, Marta Etura.  (PG-13, 113 mins)

There's little doubt that the creative forces behind THE IMPOSSIBLE approached the project with noble intentions.  There's also little doubt the film, at times a tense, emotional, and grueling drama centered on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, leaves a bit of a bad aftertaste when it's over.  It gets a lot of things right:  the tsunami itself is one of 2012's most harrowing sequences, very convincingly pulled off by the filmmakers and visual effects team, and the acting is, for the most part, excellent.  These elements manage to carry the film for a while, but at some point, it stops working and the contrivances and the maudlin audience manipulation take over.  There's much about THE IMPOSSIBLE that is very good, but just as much of it is problematic for a variety of reasons.

Based on the experiences of Maria and Enrique Belon, a Spanish couple vacationing with their three young sons at a resort in Khao Lak, Thailand over Christmas 2004, the film--a Spanish production--maximizes export potential by replacing the Belons with the Bennetts, a British-accented family from an unspecified country living in Japan, where dad Henry (Ewan McGregor) works. Mom Maria (Naomi Watts, her Australian accent intact) was a doctor "at home" but is now a stay-at-home mom to sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast).  The tsunami hits on December 26, and in the catastrophic chaos, Maria and Lucas are separated from Henry, Thomas, and Simon.  The sullen, close-to-teenaged Lucas grows up fast when it falls on him to help the badly-injured Maria.  They're eventually rescued by some Thai people in the area and transported by pickup truck to the nearest hospital, where they end up getting separated in the confusion.  Meanwhile, Henry is still near the resort with the other two boys and gives them to some fellow vacationers to take to a safe area in the mountains while he stays behind and looks for Maria and Lucas.

I don't in any way mean to diminish the pain and anguish that the Belons endured during this tragic event, but in the hands of director and Guillermo del Toro protege Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez (both were responsible for the promising 2007 fright film THE ORPHANAGE), THE IMPOSSIBLE had me grumbling to myself and rolling my eyes barely a minute into the proceedings when we see the Bennetts on the plane to Khao Lak, and a loose page that falls to the floor reveals the book Maria is reading is Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (FORESHADOWING!).  And in the immediate aftermath of the horrific tsunami (this sequence is a stunner, without question), something starts nagging at you.  Where is everybody?  There were thousands of people here two minutes ago, but now it's just Maria and Lucas.  Maybe it's a directorial technique to show that they are the story's focus, but it just looks and feels odd.  There's an occasional corpse and they do eventually find a little European boy on his own (Johan Sundberg), but the first Thai people we see are some raggedy-looking folks who drag Maria and Lucas to safety.  Now, there's been some grumbling about this film choosing to focus on the effects of the tsunami on white European vacationers, but I don't necessarily have a problem with that in and of itself.  Bayona and Sanchez chose to tell the story of one Spanish family's experiences in this event, and that's fine (though I wonder why the Spanish producers didn't just cast Spanish actors and make this a Spanish-language film; certainly someone as accomplished as, say, ORPHANAGE star Belen Rueda, arguably Spain's top actress, could've handled the Maria role), but the narrowed focus starts to feel embarrassingly tone-deaf as the film progresses.  The only Thai people we see are the ones dropping everything to be of service to the wealthy white vacationers.  Of course the Thai people in the devastated area graciously helped any survivors they found, but in choosing to focus on this particular family, the filmmakers don't even try to pay the slightest lip service to a population uprooted by the same catastrophic tragedy.

Maria Belon has claimed that the film is entirely accurate, but it feels awfully contrived.  Of course, all the separated parties will meet at the same place by sheer coincidence (this after Henry makes the stupid decision of sending two of his kids off with total strangers in a foreign country), but the way the scene plays out reeks of shameless Hollywood horseshit.  (SPOILERS) As Fernando Velazquez's score swells to an emotional apex telling the audience exactly how to feel, Lucas leaves Maria's post-surgery bedside to get her something to drink, just as Henry is wandering the halls in futile hope that they're at this hospital.  In the distance, Lucas spots a man wearing the ugly swimming trunks that Henry was wearing when the tsunami hit.  "Dad!" he yells, but Henry can't hear him in the commotion.  Wandering outside, Lucas finds the truck full of kids being taken to safe place in the mountains.  Thomas and Simon are on the back of the truck.  Little Simon sees his oldest brother.  "Lucas!" he yells.  Thomas turns, sees his brother.  "Lucas!"  Lucas, distracted from his search for the man with the ugly swimming trunks, turns around and sees his kid brothers.  "Thomas!  Simon!"  Meanwhile, Henry sits on the back of a truck outside of a hospital, resigned to the notion that Maria and Lucas aren't there.   He glances over and sees two little kids kicking a red ball that looks just like the red ball he got for Simon.  Now, Simon doesn't have this ball with him, but just the sight of that ball is all the evidence Henry needs to feel in his gut that My sons are here!   And they are.  They all see one another and embrace. And everyone, from the heroic rescuers to the life-threateningly injured, stops to share in the joy of the moment.  All that's missing is a slow clap.

 Despite the film eventually being crushed by the weight of its crowd-pleasing feel-goodness, it's impossible to understate the power of the remarkable work done by Watts and young Holland.  Watts delivers the kind of fearless, unglamourous, physically-demanding performance that almost guarantees Oscar attention.  Holland, in his onscreen debut (he revoiced a character in the English-language version of the animated THE SECRET LIFE OF ARIETTY), quickly reveals himself to be a gifted young actor and it's very likely we'll be hearing his name again down the road.  THE IMPOSSIBLE works best in the early going, during the tsunami and the immediate aftermath, with Maria and Lucas wading through mud, muck, and debris and in a long, arduous sequence where Lucas is forced to help his injured mother climb a tree to safety.  Watts and Holland are simply superb in their scenes together, but their award-caliber work is hindered significantly by too many ill-advised decisions by the filmmakers.  Despite its many strengths and one of the most terrifying depictions of a natural disaster in all of cinema, the film is ultimately too calculated, too manipulative, and too heavy-handed for its own good.


  1. Respectfully disagree, I was repeatedly touched and surprised by this picture. You can keep The Hobbit (aka Bored of the Rings), Les Miz, This is 40, Moonrise Bullshit... but this and Life of Pi lived up to their billing. imho TH WINKLESS

  2. I thought highly of enough of the film to say it's not "bad" at all--the performances--particularly Watts and Holland--deserve all the accolades they get. And the depiction of the tsunami raises the bar for natural disasters on the big screen. But the script just left me cold.