“What saves it from tedium is that the string score by Fernando Velazquez is absolutely superb. I was immediately drawn into its emotional power and intensity in ways usually reserves for a schmaltzy horror film. Here, the music balances the emotional unrest with the depth of the audience’s concerns for the characters. No scene is allowed to breathe on its own as if afraid its intensity might come undone by the amateurish script. Without this score, all of the film’s good intentions would be for naught.”
The Impossible, Movie review
What happens when a European horror director goes mainstream? This is the question that plagued me when I walked into Juan Antonio Bayona’s follow-up to the wonderful 2007 Guillermo del Toro produced ghost thriller The Orphanage, The Impossible. Mr. Bayona’s previous film was haunting and subtle in the best sense of the words. At the time, I really felt like a serious horror talent had been introduced to the world. Why it took him so long to settle on a mainstream, overly-commercial, TV-movie-like, Based-on-a-True-Story account of a family surviving the impact of the 2004 tsunami in South East Asia as his follow-up is irrelevant. I know he was asked to direct The Twilight Saga: Eclipse before this, but thankfully passed on that paycheck. Instead, he decided to tell the amazing story of a prominent, well-educated Spanish family on Christmas vacation in the Khao Lak region of Thailand who end up getting caught in the middle of one of the worst natural disasters on the last decade….played by the very non-Spanish European actors Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor and three equally non-Spanish child actors. The reason for this nationality change is very simple: box-office (and awards) potential. It is sad to think that commercial viability has become so accepted in the movie-going world today. But, that’s post-recession economics for you.
The story told here is surprisingly narrow-focused considering how many people died in this tragedy and does not exactly earn sympathy for its characters. The family Bennett is a curious bunch. Curious b/c we really don’t get to know much about that except that the father, Henry, might be losing his high- ranking job, the mother, Maria, is a stay at home mother who happens to be a doctor, and the oldest son, Lucas, is growing apart from his family. Of course, none of these material things matter much once a tsunami suddenly hits them while swimming at the resort. Suddenly, survival is all that matters. Maria is separated from her family b/c of trying to retrieve a lost page from a book. Only Lucas is able to find her and they hold onto a tree for support. They seem to be safe, except that Maria has sustained horrible injuries and needs medical treatment immediately. Henry is left looking for his remaining sons. The screen goes to black. Of course, the director is saving this amazing sequence for the climax of the movie as Maria suddenly remembers what she went through to get as far as out of the water.
The rest of the film doesn’t disappoint that much as it does infuriate that it regulates the rest of the stories of the Thai people and other tourists who were not as fortunate as the Bennetts to the background, only occasionally glimpsing at them. It is true that this is a story of one tourist family’s survival the way the director sees fit, but a cross-section of stories colliding with different results wouldn’t have been out of the question here.
The performances here are what sell the film. Naomi Watts has already garnered some serious attention as Maria, including SAG and Golden Globe nominations with more to probably follow. It is easily one of her more likable and relatable roles to date. It is a nice break from the usual genre remakes and women on the verge of a nervous breakdown roles that she became famous for. She shows serious emotional depth, unbeknown physicality, and makes the audience (and Academy) care about what happens to this character. Ewan McGregor is already being overlooked for his career-best work here as Henry. The role is showy and heroic and he showcases some serious breadth and subtlety, but it’s really Miss Watts’ showcase that takes all the attention away. The child actors are very well cast with the ace being Tom Holland as Lucas. It is shocking to think that this is his first film acting role as he shows more versatility and emotional range than most well-known child actors younger than he.
While the acting feels honest and true, the direction hits you over the head like a sledgehammer. Mr. Bayona’s horror background comes back to, well, haunt him as this real-life horror story never ceases with the intensity, but is so manipulative and Caucasian-centered that it begins to feel embarrassing to the memories of the natives and other tourist families that were not so lucky as the Bennetts were to have things like lofty insurance policies. The way the tsunami scene is shot, you’d think Godzilla was about to emerge from the ocean. Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated 2010 film, Hereafter, also comes to mind, but this is not totally CGI as it was recreated in a tank using Tedious dialogue is allowed to be spoken. No emotion reflecting agony is ignored. The shot of Miss Watts’ hand emerging from the water to horror-esque strings recalls Deliverance, except here it’s supposed to be life-affirming. The effect is reached, but the cost of it is staggering. It renders the film socially-irresponsible and kind of racist in a noticeable way.
Speaking of the music, it’s the best thing about the film. The film sandwiches itself between two epic title sequences against black title cards, informing us of its self-importance. The words “true story” are even lingered, as if the audience would refuse to believe it otherwise. What saves it from tedium is that the string score by Fernando Velazquez is absolutely superb. I was immediately drawn into its emotional power and intensity in ways usually reserves for a schmaltzy horror film. Here, the music balances the emotional unrest with the depth of the audience’s concerns for the characters. No scene is allowed to breathe on its own as if afraid its intensity might come undone by the amateurish script. Without this score, all of the film’s good intentions would be for naught. B/c of the overbearing music, it just about works even as it calls way too much attention to itself.
I’d like to say more nice things about this film as I felt it was a story worth telling before I actually saw it. Why Hollywood films continually turn their back on profiling the survivors of natural disasters is beyond me. For some reason, the film’s hell-bent false feel-good “noble” theme seems to radiate with the Hollywood elite, as no less than Mark Ruffalo, Reese Witherspoon , and Angelina Jolie have vouched for it. Perhaps it’s b/c it’s only concern is for a wealthy Caucasian family’s protection. The final scene of the film suggests that while this one family doesn’t exactly earn its splendor, no one film could ever make sense out of or do justice to the devastation that happened then. Fair enough. The emotional scars we wear are just as damaging as the physical ones we endure. However, if you’re going to be a philanthropist, you might as well display some actual philanthropy to begin with.
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