Film Review – The Impossible

The Impossible (M)

Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona

Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland

Three and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

I had heard the praise and I had heard the controversy. Australia’s delayed release of The Impossible, about the deadly tsunami that swept through Asia in 2004, meant we were getting it after the internet had already lit up amidst a storm of protest from many about adjustments the film makers had made to bring the story to the big screen. Their decision to narrow the scope and focus on the plight of one surviving family that were visitors to Thailand at the time the disaster hit and to change their race from Spanish to British caused quite a ruckus. A curious choice, one can assume for reasons of maximum audience appeal and box office success. Quite unfortunate.

I was willing to go along with it because there is much to explore with the fish out of water situation of a family in a strange land having to navigate not only a foreign landscape, but one that is devastated by the unexpected and sudden tsunami wave. That enduring fight to survive magnified in strange surroundings and also stripped of creature comforts such as phone communications, first class medical treatment and transportation after a horrific natural disaster. This isn’t to say that this particular family’s experience was more scary, dramatic or terrifying than those than anyone else’s, but one cannot deny there is room here for a confronting and heightened dramatic look at the devastating event.

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While it is deeply unfortunate that in this version, the story of the millions of families that lived in the affected areas and their triumphant spirit to rebuild after such devastation remains untouched, it is not a reason to dismiss The Impossible. There are countless sides to this story, and The Impossible is just one. However, director Juan Antonio Bayona does himself a disservice with some lapses in judgement that come off as insensitive oversights that threaten to undo his otherwise outstanding work.

We are given a brief introduction to the holidaying Bennett family: Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) on a bumpy plane ride to Thailand (the nerves exposing  turbulence is a particularly on the nose opening) before they settle in their luxurious resort room. After exchanging Christmas gifts, the family frolic in the resort pool but their joy is cut short by a wave of ocean water that annihilates everything in its path and separates the family. Maria and Lucas manage to find each other while Henry has Thomas and Simon. The family must wade through all the death and destruction to seek medical help and find each other.

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Bayona doesn’t shy away from the horror of the situation with the extended wave sequence (revisited later in the film as a flashback), exposing his audience to graphic gaping wounds, and putting us right in the middle of the destruction with the characters. We see and experience what they do. It is a confronting and unsettling position to be in but absolutely necessary. Disaster films have never before felt so scarily authentic. But even after the water depletes, the fight to survive and reunite continues. The two parties of the Bennett family must try to find each other but it is like finding a needle in a haystack. There are thousands of others around them in the same situation and the only people many of these strangers want to help is themselves. Maria, who is badly injured, and Thomas are saved by friendly locals and taken to an overflowing, chaotic and questionable hospital where the language barrier is the least of their problems. Meanwhile, Henry sends his two boys to safer, higher ground with strangers so he can find his wife and eldest son.

While Bayona has made monumental achievements recreating the physical and emotional impacts of the disaster, other elements are sorely misconceived. The only other people the family encounter are English-speaking Caucasian tourists, save for the handful that save Maria and Thomas. Telling one family’s story is excusable, what isn’t is completely ignoring the people who lived there that had to endure its tragedy but also rebuild their lives and homes without many of their loved ones. Trying to spot an Asian face in the hospital scenes is harder than finding the striped character in the Where’s Wally? books. This heartless exclusion of native survivors leaves a bad taste, as does the final scene in which the Bennett family are whisked away on a private jet with so many empty seats while others on the ground, not just the locals but other doomed holidaymakers, are left to suffer. More than likely an accurate scene, but it leaves the viewer with a heavy heart and for all the wrong reasons.

There is no doubting the story is a hard-hitting one, that despite the racial alterations and careless exclusions, still has universal thematic appeal and manages to leave a deep impact. Just try not to shed a tear during this powerful telling of a horrifically upsetting but also uplifting story of hope and courage. It is impossible.

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