Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible, about a family hit by the brunt of the tsunami that devastated Southeast Asia in 2004, is a dramatized account, and not quite a movie. The film opens with an attractive family of five – Maria (Naomi Watts) and her husband Henry (Ewen McGregor), and their three young boys: Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) – arriving at a beach-side resort in Thailand. We get a postcard-deep sketch of their life before – bam – the tsunami hits, and suddenly the camera is in the water with the Maria and her eldest Lucas, as they rush along in the dreadful murk, bodies punctured by debris, arms grasping for each other and anything stable.
When the water finally settles, the mother and son have remarkably survived the onslaught, but they are then swept up in the rag-tag humanitarian mission. Maria’s broken body is dragged through the leveled jungle and eventually ends up in an over-crowded hospital, while Lucas fears his mother is on the brink of death and wonders about the fate of his father and two brothers.
The story is real, we are emphatically reminded by way of an opening title card that fades out a paragraph of text and lets the words “true story” linger a little longer than the rest. But like so many films that pack their power in the fact that something incredible actually happened, director Bayona makes the mistake of believing that simply relaying that happening is enough to make a good movie. As a result, we don’t ever get to close to these simply rendered characters, and the film’s narrative possesses no sense of intrinsic conflict outside the fear and wonder about whether the family – or at least some of the family – will survive the ordeal. It’s not enough of a spark.
Stories of remarkable survival, like Piers Paul Read’s Alive, for example, excel when that struggle is leveraged as a means to explore hidden depths of our humanity that are revealed by extreme situations. The Impossible, though, never penetrates the surface of its physical or existential situation. There are lingering pans, panoramic vistas of grand suffering, elegiac cut-aways, and complex and frantic underwater shots. All of which, however, play merely as ornamental affectations, working along with the spectacle of the raw situation to provoke sentimentalized emotions that inevitably floods to the surface when presented with hard images of struggle and suffering. Even the two talented actors in the lead roles, McGregor and Watts, have little to do but to mug exasperation and consternation.
If there is a star in the film it is Tom Holland, the young actor who does a masterful job playing Lucas, who dominates the screen time and yet we still want something more from his story. In Lucas we begin to see what Bayona may be after, an internalized sense of desperation a hard-worn fidelity and a sense of the surprising inner strength in the face of mammoth adversity. Lucas offers flashes of that, particularly when the camera swings to the periphery of the family’s tale and Lucas scours the hospital for lost children seeking to reconnect them with their family members. Here we begin to taste the real desperation of the event. But that story — devastation and heartbreak multiplied by some 200,000 dead victims of the disaster — is a mere backdrop to a hard-breathing melodrama that manages to make the impossible seem rudimentary, perfunctory, and scripted.