The Impossible

Year: 2012
Production Co: Apaches Entertainment
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G Sanchez
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast

Some movies are immune to criticism by virtue of their subject matter. Any movie about the tragedy that befell the four corners of the Indian Ocean on Boxing Day 2004 is like a movie about US soldiers leaving their loving families and going to Afghanistan to fight, or a disabled child defying the odds to follow a dream. The Impossible is one of those movies that makes it seem like any negative comment makes you cold and hateful, just like criticising a movie about US soldiers in action is tantamount to treason.

It's taken longer than usual to bring a human slant on the killer tsunami to the big screen and it comes via a Spanish director, Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage). But is it too heavy handed? At times The Impossible doesn't tug your heartstrings, it wraps a steel cable around them, attaches it to a winch on the back of a 4WD drive and plants it foot to the floor.

The grief and agony of Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three sons (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast) in the wake of the devastating wave is obviously a large part of the story, but there's a difference between emotion arising out of character, story and dialogue and hosing the audience down with it as is from a water cannon.

When the two younger brothers are reunited with Lucas after the wave has scattered the family, he doesn't just turn around at the sound of Simon and Thomas' cries, the camera wheels around him like a bird as he turns an agonisingly slow circle. It's like having Bayona sitting next to you applying thumbscrews, whispering 'isn't this intense, what if he doesn't catch sight of them?' The lack of cinematic subtlety pervades the entire film after the wave hits, and the melodrama cheapens the family's struggles.

Where Bayona and his team of artists shine is in the tsunami sequence itself. You've seen the moment where it approaches the hotel in the trailer, knocking palm trees down in its wake and crashing over the rooftops of seaside bungalows. But two major sequences of Maria and Lucas being swept along in the rubble, desperately trying to reach each other, are technically brilliant and will have your heart in your throat.

After the wave passes, Lucas and his badly injured mother climb up a tree to wait for either more water or help. We cut back to the hotel where Henry finds the two younger boys, who've miraculously escaped the worst of it and hidden on the roof. He reluctantly puts them on a ramshackle bus inland while he stays to search for Maria and Lucas, who by this time have been taken to an overrun hospital by kindly locals.

Much of the battle isn't just overcoming injury and wreckage, it's the lack of organisation as people are split up and moved among slipshod facilities completely unprepared for what happened. Along with the tens of thousands of others, Maria, Henry and their boys are in a panicked state just trying to find each other.

In the end The Impossible is a lot like Robert Zemeckis' Flight, a midday TV movie with a big screen budget that served up its single cinematic visual too early. The difference is that stellar performances by masters of their craft carried Flight the rest of the way, and for the remainder of The Impossible Bayona relies on swelling crescendos of artifice.

A review of The Impossible also might not be the best place for a discussion on the race relations involved, but it's somewhat sad that the only way we can apparently connect with the humanity of so much death and destruction is by looking at white people on holidays in a beautiful resort. The Thai villagers who take Lucas and Maria to hospital are classic 1940s era Hollywood noble savages as they mutter incoherently, wield traditional medicine and help the English folks with no thought for themselves.

The final frames, seen from the window of a plane whisking survivors to safety, might be the only sly subtlety in the film. While all the rich white people got airlifted out to go back to luxurious homes and well-appointed hospitals, over 200,000 poor Asians stayed behind in wrecked countries with their homes destroyed.

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