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 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). And 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.
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 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 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 search out 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 famliy vulnerably says “I’m scared” or “I’m scared too.” Moments of uplift or heartbreak are not just punctuated by Fernando Velázquez‘s bland 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 sound of and omnious roar that fills the speaker, 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.
And 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+]