Tom Slater
The Impossible: a giant wave of sentimentality

The Impossible - review

spiked, 11 January 2013

The Impossible is a deeply problematic film, but not in the way you might expect.

The first English-language offering from Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (best known for his 2007 creepy-kid thriller, The Orphanage), it tells the true story of a family of holidaymakers’ fight for survival during the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

With the past decade littered with end of days popcorn flicks like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, there has been concern that Bayona, however well intentioned, would merely play-up to our depraved, eco-anxiety-fuelled appetite for annihilation, exploiting the tragedy for disaster-porn spectacle.

At first, little would make you think otherwise.

The Spanish Belon family, who were sunning themselves by the pool of a Thai resort when the 30-foot wave hit, are recast (understandably and unobtrusively) as Brits, with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts playing pushing-40 parents Henry and Maria, while fresh-faced actors Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast play their three boys, Lucas, Thomas and Simon. 

The script dispenses with the pleasantries, however, and after a scant 10 minutes or so of family bliss, the foreboding rumble begins to sound.

However, aside from the obligatory tracking shot, honing in on McGregor’s horrified face as he begins to comprehend what is about to happen, Bayona shows admirable restraint – grounding the film in a heartrending first-person perspective rather than over-indulging the aerial money shots. Awe-inspiring images of the crashing waters tearing apart walls like paper are present, but the focus in these early, hellish moments lies firmly on Maria, the camera barely straying from her side. Heart-in-mouth, we watch as she is pulled under the surging waters and battered with debris until she finally surfaces and glimpses the devastated scene above.

Amazingly (and, it should be noted, true to the real story), she is reunited with her eldest son, Lucas, in the midst of the torrent. Despite his inexperience, Holland offers a sobering portrayal of a boy jolted by circumstance into manhood, as he is forced to take the lead and help his badly injured mother (played with moving stoicism by Watts) get to safety.

This first act is flooring yet humanising – exactly the balance Bayona needed to strike in order to make the film work. But unfortunately, things soon begin to unravel.

While focusing purely on the family was a necessary means for The Impossible to explore the reality behind the statistics, it has to be said it does a great disservice to many of the victims of the tragedy – specifically the locals. Maria and Lucas are rescued by some intrepid villagers who brave the waterlogged wasteland to look for survivors. Somehow, they are miraculously unscathed and unfazed by the day’s events. Similarly, when she is taken to hospital, all of the afflicted are European holidaymakers, tended to by pragmatic, Zen-like doctors and nurses.

You could be excused for leaving the cinema convinced that Thai people are impervious to natural disasters. Seeing that the vast majority of the 230,000 lives claimed in countries around the Indian Ocean were most certainly not Caucasian, this feels rather cavalier. However, what truly derails proceedings is the script’s descent into pure, gooey-eyed schmaltz.

A candy-coating taints many of the potentially most powerful moments. Offered a phone by a kindly stranger, Henry calls his father-in-law back home, weeping as he lets him know he can’t find his daughter. But then he breaks down completely and hastily finishes the call so as not to waste his benefactor’s precious battery. Lasting barely 20 seconds, this is a devastating, self-contained vignette of familial despair. Unfortunately, it’s instantly compromised; ‘you can’t leave it like that’ says the phone’s effusive owner, handing it back to him to reassure the old man on the other end of the line as whinnying strings swell in the background.

Marking a complete turnaround from its frayed, torrid opening, the soft-focus, predominantly slow-mo final scenes end The Impossible, quite literally, on an all-too satisfying note. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t shed a couple of tears; the emotional onslaught is hard to resist. But those tears felt cheap, ill-gotten, wrenched from tear-ducts under false pretences. I felt, well, used.

There’s nothing wrong with a good ol’ manipulative weepfest, but considering the subject matter, The Impossible’s heart-string-tugging machinations are in woefully poor taste. While Bayona deftly avoids the trappings of disaster porn, he ends up indulging something far more insidious and just as dehumanising: sentimentalism.

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