Of Little Comfort, by David Bax
If one were truly dedicated to finding the bright side of things, a film like J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible could possibly be interpreted as an inspiring tale meant to reinforce faith in the perseverance of the human spirit and our ability to find strength in one another in times of great crisis. In fact, that’s almost certainly what Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez intended in their retelling of the true story of a Spanish family vacationing in Thailand during the 2004 tsunami. If one is not interested in straining to round mediocrity up to something acceptable, one will only find The Impossible to be a lazy disservice to those, including the actual members of the family in question, who experienced this catastrophe or any other.
We meet a family (they’ve become British for the purposes of salability) who live in Japan and have decided to spend their Christmas holiday at a Thai beach resort. They are mother Maria (Naomi Watts), father Henry (Ewan McGregor) and sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin). Very shortly into the film, they are spending the day at the resort’s pool when the ocean stands up and then throws itself at the coastline, destroying and rending buildings, nature and lives. Maria and Lucas find each other quickly but Maria is very badly hurt. Their dual mission becomes to get her to a hospital and to find out what’s happened to Henry, Simon and Thomas.
That very short time between the film’s beginning and the tsunami lays the groundwork for the major problems to come. Bayona and Sánchez seem to go out of their way to keep the family from being sympathetic for any reasons beyond their being white and speaking English. The main message imparted – their defining characteristic, apparently – is that they are quite well off. Sure, Henry’s having some problems at work. But they almost certainly won’t fire him because they would have to give him such a fantastic severance. Even if he did lose his job, Maria could just go back to hers, as a doctor. Relatable, huh?
Fortunately, if you can call it that, the most accomplished and successful part of the movie is fast on the heels of this introduction. The tsunami itself, experienced mostly through Maria’s perspective, is gargantuan and terrifying. The effects are more than impressive but Bayona does not simply lean on them. The hand-wringing, breathless suspense comes not from the trauma of the wave itself but from coming up for air after it. Maria does not get to breathe and reflect on her survival. Instead she registers only that the entire world is now filled with rushing water. It’s hurling her along with everything else – where she does not know – at speeds that put her at the current’s nonexistent mercy. She and trees and furniture and cars and literally everything are being recklessly smashed together. It’s one of the most astounding and memorable big-budget sequences in cinema this year.
Also on the short list of praise-worthy aspects of The Impossible is the editing. Elena Ruiz keeps the proceedings sliding ever forward at a steady pace. Even when the content is irritating or cloying, the film moves along masterfully, feeling blessedly shorter than its nearly two hours.
Some may know Bayona as the director of the lovely and chilling 2007 film The Orphanage. His experience in the horror genre pays off here in ways both good and bad. After the tsunami itself, the only moments that feel truly perilous are the ones that detail the graveness of the injuries Maria suffered while her body was strung through detritus at great speed. The uncompromising gore is sobering and stands out from the more soft-pedaled nature of the rest of the movie.
At other times, though, Bayona’s horror approach to the story is ill-advised, such as in the early scenes when he tries to use our knowledge of the coming devastation to fashion the tsunami into a kind of sentient monster. In the most wrongheaded of these moves, an idyllic beach scene suddenly cuts to a handheld shot from far out in the ocean. It’s essentially a point of view shot that makes the tsunami seem like Michael Myers watching Jamie Lee Curtis through a window. It’s practically comedic.
Were this a made-for-television movie, it would probably also be seen as humorous that Bayona returns again and again to tearful, desperate scenes set to swelling music. Characters we don’t even really know and some that we do experience the kind of stagey catharsis that can maybe be gotten away with once in a movie. There are so many scenes of people shouting each other’s names that the dramatis personae will be etched into viewers’ brains.
Many, many people died in the 2004 tsunami. Without a doubt, there can be value in telling a tale of survival but by proving itself valueless, The Impossible leaves a crass impression, as if a little bit of lightweight uplift and the wiping of a few tears from a cheek can make two hundred thousand deaths somehow palatable.