Based around the Boxing Day tsunami that struck South East Asia in 2004, The Impossible documents the true story of how one family of five was separated during the chaos, and their unlikely survival despite horrific injuries, presuming the other party may have perished, and being swept miles apart from each other. Juan Antonio Bayona’s Spain-funded film changes the Spanish tourist family of the real events to a British one, with Naomi Watts’ mother, bearing horrific wounds, managing to hold onto her eldest son (Tom Holland) and barely surviving the onslaught of water. Husband Ewan McGregor, meanwhile, battered and with a scratched eye, manages to secure his other two, very young sons near their resort, before setting off to find the remainder of his family.
Based on accounts, the film, nationalities aside, would seem to be an accurate portrayal of this particular family’s experience, though the youngest boys’ isolated conversation with a cameo-ing Geraldine Chaplin, about how some stars burn out before their light reaches us, is one of various mawkish touches amidst the instances of visceral filmmaking. Other such aspects include an overly sentimental score, very cloying in its refusal to not play over almost every scene, and some of the poor dialogue given to young Tom Holland, who tries but often cannot make his declarative dialogue sound at all natural for a teenager.
The Orphanage director Bayona’s horror origins also provide some discomfort of an unintentional kind. The film’s depiction of the wave’s assault manages to avoid feeling like an empty spectacle out of a Roland Emmerich feature, but a latter, slow-motion and saturated-colour reprisal of one character’s experience in the water feels quite exploitative. The tastefulness of the film’s eagerness to rush to the horrific tsunami also feels problematic. The opening shot is slowly teased with a prolonged rumbling sound over black that sounds like a monster, only to turn out to be the engine of the family’s plane to Thailand. Barely ten minutes pass before the wave hits, and the scenes before it don’t really inform about the family beyond some very broad characteristics and passing mentions of employment status; the ocean gets its own ominous point-of-view shot pre-tsunami, though, so the filmmakers’ greater concerns are evident. The story of survival still retains some potency, but there is little to no attempt to depict the characters with any depth.
Nuance is ultimately the defining problem with The Impossible, and the biggest lack of it is in regards to the context of the event it depicts. There is no problem with choosing to focus on the one family’s experience during the tsunami, and there is nothing wrong with that focus being on a group of European people, as many thousands of tourists were among the victims of that terrible tragedy. The film is not required to be about the experience of the local people or everyone who was a victim, nor does it necessarily claim to be. The problem is that, alongside this foregrounding of the tourists’ woes, there is virtually no sense of the Thai suffering even in the film’s background. Among the many corpses or injured seen in the film, there is perhaps one of obvious Asian descent, while virtually the only Thai person with more than one line of dialogue is a nurse who is helping Watts and Holland. The status of saviours is the only light the Thai people are portrayed in, and in a very literal manner in one scene where a glowing light surrounds the head of a local man who helps in dragging Watts to a nearby village. This minimisation is a glaringly insensitive aspect in a film already problematic with its preferred interest in genre thrills.