Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible opens with a title card reminding us of the tsunami of December 2004 and of its 230,000 victims, followed by the announcement that the film is based on true events. Then the text fades away until all that’s left are the words ‘true events’ in the middle of the screen. This isn’t so much a disclaimer as a desperate cry for attention. The Impossible, based on a true story that actually happened, for real. At least it sets the tone right away: here’s a film that has no idea what subtlety even is, and which would have no reason to even exist if it weren’t for its basis in reality.
For all this early posturing, though, The Impossible doesn’t actually care about the 230,000 victims of the tsunami, but only for a tiny fraction of them. The film follows the Bennetts, a rich British family vacationing in Thailand for Christmas, and almost all the supporting players are similarly affluent white tourists caught in the tsunami and its aftermath. The few Thai characters, doctors, nurses, and tattooed noble savages alike, are here to help the white people survive, find their loved ones, and get the hell out of the country. What the tsunami actually meant for Thailand and its people is never explored, or even hinted at; the perspective remains always that of the white tourists, of people who had the luxury of leaving the area after the disaster. This may be a true story, but it’s only part of the truth—and a small part, at that. (In a final twist, another title card at the end reveals that the Bennetts were actually a Spanish family; one has to assume, though, that a Spanish-language film would have attracted fewer viewers—and generated much less revenue—than one starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts.)
If I haven’t touched on the story yet, it’s because there is barely any story to touch on. (Nonetheless, some spoilers follow, although nothing that you can’t see coming from miles away.) Like too many films based on true events, The Impossible is a lazy piece of writing (by Sergio G. Sanchez, who also wrote The Orphanage, Bayona’s massively overrated directorial debut) that shows no sign of inspiration or originality. The Bennetts—Henry and Maria, and their three sons Lucas, Thomas, and Simon—aren’t characters, or even archetypes; we know next to nothing about them, and learn even less over the course of the film. When they get separated after the tsunami hits their luxury resort, we’re expected to care about them because we’ve been told that actually happened to real people, and because Henry and Maria look like Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, actors to whom we might have some form of prior emotional attachment. The screenplay is full of moments and phrases repeated in different contexts, something that, in even the hackiest screenplays, is usually code for emotional growth. Except there’s no such growth here; Lucas is by far the character who evolves the most over the course of the movie, in that he comes to realize that he actually does love his family, even his annoying younger brother. Quite the breakthrough indeed.
The film is similarly insipid and uninspired in almost all other aspects. The tsunami hitting the resort is the only truly impressive sequence, in no small part because, as Naomi Watts is thrown around like a ragdoll by the waves, the bombastic music for once gives way to the much more terrifying naturalistic sounds of her body getting hit and torn apart by branches, broken glass, and all sorts of debris. It’s a spectacular but almost restrained sequence, and it’s that sense of restraint that the rest of the film dearly lacks. When a wounded and delirious Maria is dragged through the swamp on an improvised stretcher, Bayona quickly alternates close-up shots of her grimacing face and of that of the Thai elder dragging her, the jump cuts obviously symbolizing both the jerky movements of the stretcher and the pain shooting through Maria’s body. Then, as the shots become longer, the music swells until we can no longer hear anything else, and the last thing we see before Maria loses consciousness (and the screen, of course, fades to white) is a long close-up of her rescuer’s face, the sunlight forming like a halo around it. Not only is the imagery heavy-handed, but the scene is shot and put together in the exact same way similar scenes always are. Later, when Henry finally finds the hospital where his wife and older son are, Bayona keeps panning away from him exiting a room to Lucas entering it, unable not to exploit the situation for cheap thrills.
If The Impossible is lazy and exploitative, its biggest faux-pas might be that it ultimately tries to turn one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory into a feel good story. Perhaps it’s trying to make us all feel better for only caring about the tsunami for a couple weeks, until some other catastrophe replaced it in the news. For two hours we’re made to care about the Bennetts and their trials, but when we leave the theatre at the end, it’s secure in the knowledge that the white people got reunited with their loved ones, and that everything is right in the world.
Gaël Schmidt-Cléach is a French critic and writer. He currently resides in Paris, but can also be found on Twitter (@gschmidtcleach).
The Impossible (2012)
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Screenplay: Sergio G. Sanchez
Producers: Belen Atienza, Alvaro Augustin, Ghislain Barrois, Enrique Lopez Lavigne
Director of Photography: Oscar Faura
Editor: Elena Ruiz
Art Director: Didac Bono
Costume Design: Anna Bingemann, Sparka Lee Hall, Maria Reyes
Original Music: Fernando Velazquez
Cast: Naomi Watts (Maria Bennett), Ewan McGregor (Henry Bennett), Tom Holland (Lucas), Samuel Joslin (Thomas), Oaklee Pendergast (Simon)
Runtime 114 minutes