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Division Division: ‘The Impossible’

Division Division: 'The Impossible'

When there’s no critical consensus on a movie, the film gets sent to Criticwire’s Division Division where we measure the arguments on both sides.

Critical consensus is a funny thing. For the proof, look no further than “The Impossible,” a disaster drama from J.A. Bayona (“The Orphanage”) that follows a family’s search for one another after being separated (and possibly killed) by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. According to Rotten Tomatoes, it’s earned the approval of 80% of critics. Look at Metacritic, and the number’s a comfortable 73. But on our own Criticwire Network, the average dips to a cautious B-.

That’s because while reaction to “The Impossible” has fallen all over the spectrum, most of the response has been of the love-it or hate-it variety — and the film that has garnered strong feelings from critics in both camps. Interestingly, most agree on several aspects. Even the harshest reviews admit that the actors, particularly Naomi Watts, are top-notch, and nobody is denying the terror that the tsunami scene invokes. But given that the tsunami killed 230,000 people in 14 different countries, is it acceptable for a Hollywood film to suggest that it seemed to hit wealthy, white tourists the hardest? 

Some reviews were colored by that question, others not. Roger Ebert called “The Impossible” “one of the best films of the year,” a sentiment with which Leonard Maltin agreed. But Ed Gonzalez, in a scathing half-star review on Slant Magazine, said the film’s portrayal of race is “a blatant distortion of truth, and one that veers odiously into magical-negro terrain.” A.A. Dowd had similar feelings, rhetorically asking, “is this Thai community populated entirely by crying blond moppets and strapping Spaniards?” Look at the film’s page on the Criticwire network one more time. 11 reviews out of 49 — over 20% — are A’s, but almost as many are either D’s or F’s. Nearly half the critics fall into one of the two extremities. 

Let’s look a little more closely at both sides:

PRO: It’s an incredibly emotional story.

“The images have a primal power, and to dismiss them as sentimental or manipulative is almost to dismiss the whole art of moviemaking.” — Scott MacDonald, Toronto Standard

CON: That story is incredibly misleading.

“…one of the most horrendously overwrought and unequivocally disrespectful films to be screened in cinemas this century.” — Tom Clift, Moviedex

PRO: It’s only trying to tell one story, not a representative one.

“In a disaster, the nationality on one’s passport does not matter” — Mark Dujsik, Mark Reviews Movies

CON: That one story is far from top-notch.

“The Impossible uses the tropes of countless horror films and thrillers before it to craft a this-is-what-it-was-like theme-park attraction.” — Ed Gonzalez, Slant Magazine

PRO: The tsunami sequence is incredible.

“Director Juan Antonio Bayona lends the tsunami sequence a harrowing intensity.” — A.A. Dowd, Time Out Chicago

CON: The rest of the movie is much less incredible.

“After that, however, there’s not much else he does but train his jittery lens on mud-and-tear-streaked faces.” — A.A. Dowd, Time Out Chicago

PRO: It’s unsentimental.

“Bayona and Sanchez doggedly avoid sentimentality, allowing us to bring our own emotional reaction to the events onscreen.” — Leonard Maltin, Movie Crazy

CON: Or maybe it’s really sentimental.

“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.” — Kevin Jagernauth, The Playlist

PRO: It works anyway.

“It has a very weak script. Mind you, I cried like a banshee at the sight of blatantly manipulative human emotion under extreme duress.” — Yehudit Mam, I’ve Had It With Hollywood

So which is it? Overbearing, disrespectful, and offensive? Or human, powerful, and thrilling? It’s not an answer that you can find looking at aggregates, so you might have to go check out “The Impossible” for yourself. Prepare for the worst, hope for the best, because based on these reviews you will probably think that it’s one or the other.

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