TIFF 2012 Review: THE IMPOSSIBLE is a Little Bit Soggy

"Just close your eyes and think of something nice" is a refrain repeated several times during J.A. Bayona's Tsunami disaster film that sees Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts (and their three children) attempt to re-unite after a tidal wave destroys their hotel and threatens their lives. There is no arguing with the staging and execution of the disaster itself - a tour de force sequence that sees the camera, Watts and young Tom Hollander swept away in a river of debris-strewn water for an unrelenting 15 peril-laden minutes. 

But the film itself seems to ignore that there are actual Thailanders in Thailand, and only focuses on 'saving the white people' for its runtime. Occasionally, a local will show up to help (having nothing better to do?), but the film only has eyes for Caucasians; not just the split-up McGregor-Watts clan, but other stranded European and American tourists. I'm not one to be easily offended by this sort of slanted storytelling, but it's impossible (heh!) to miss here.

The film does little to establish the family, only implying that their finances are spread a little thin, and that Maria (Watts) is a doctor who is taking time off work to raise their boys, and that Lucas's (McGregor) sweet Japanese job may be in trouble. This minor character development is literally swept away by larger issues at hand. The first half focuses mainly on Maria and her eldest son trying to get medical attention for a fairly gruesome injury. It is as if Bayona saw Michael Haneke's recent remake of Funny Games and thought to himself, I can go further on making Ms. Watts suffer and cry for the bulk of a motion picture. 

The film attempts to squeeze as much emotional grist as possible by having various parts of the family (eventually Lucas and the other two boys) get separated and re-unite ad nauseam. Case in point, the film's most egregious offense is a 'we will just keep missing each other' sequence. Ostensibly the movie's climax - involving moving hospital beds and lots of running around the where the characters keep crisscrossing without meeting in a hospital set-piece - the sequence, frankly, is offensive and way out of place with the straightforward drama that Bayona seems to be aiming for. It simply doesn't fit. 

The film has the nerve to flirt with an Owl-Creek-Bridge kind of scenario but then pulls back its punch. I'm not sure which decision would actually be worse. Geraldine Chaplin shows up briefly to pontificate about the transience and beauty of life, but by that time, nobody cares and the film goes back to being "The Passion of Naomi Watts." The film was based on (inspired by?) the true story of a family who survived the actual 2004 Tsunami that hit the coast of Thailand, but this is all traditional Hollywood moviemaking on display here. The film often teases that it will break out of 'formula,' but then pulls back at the last minute. Whether that was so it could adhere to actual events or for commercial concerns remains a mystery to me. 

Nevertheless, the film does indeed look gorgeous. It displays one of the best uses of high contrast, super colour saturation I have seen, period. J.A. Bayona easily scales up the wonderful craft on display in his 2007 ghost-story The Orphanage; the director knows what to do with a large budget in terms of spectacle, but then after putting all of that money up on screen, he asks that, well, you close your eyes and think of something nice.
Around the Internet:
  • I knew this film would have a bias toward victims that were merely visiting , as opposed to the local victims who were left to actually bare the brunt of the disaster, after the tourists & expats had flown home to relative comfort.
    With all the resources and budget , it is a slap in the face to all of the native population . It's like making a film about the Ntew York WTC destruction and centering it around a family of 4 from Japan who'd flown in for a little holiday.

  • Kurt Halfyard

    I wrote the review and am the least politically correct person I know. Come back and talk to me after y'all have actually seen the movie, it's not just the main family that this is done with in the film, the film looks like there were very few Thai folks in Thailand when the Tsunami hit. But the number of problems with how it choses to frame the narrative (beyond the 'save the white people' issue) are many, several also mentioned in this review that people do not seem to want to criticize over having a knee jerk reaction to a film that I let percolate for over a week before writing this review text.
    -Kurt

  • Garth

    So you sat on it for a week and the best you could come up with is "i wish this was about something else"?

    That's a pretty poor review of the movie.

  • Oz

    Kurt, you know you are dealing with one person writing under different names right? Go to Hollywood elsewhere and any other site critiquing the film and you can see a pattern of this nut case.

  • Oz

    Be very careful, most of these reactions are being written by one person.

  • richardM

    Stupid so-called "critics" always want to be smart*ss when reviewing movies. Politically correct or not, this is the true story of a white family caught in the 2004 disaster. And the talented Naomi Watts played the truth so brilliantly and passionately that she should have won the Oscar already.

  • Jack

    Isn't "nice" to call the tour the force lived by a survivor of such a big disaster "The Pasion Of Naomi Watts"? It seems pretty clear that for this reviewer the 2004 tsunami was only what he saw in the daily news. I wonder if he would have the skills to face the REAL Maria and tell her about his "Passion".

  • moneenerd

    "The film was based on (inspired by?) the true story of a family who
    survived the actual 2004 Tsunami that hit the coast of Thailand, but
    this is all traditional Hollywood moviemaking on display here."
    Did you tards even read the review?

  • Nicole

    Does the person who wrote this review realize that it was a TRUE STORY????

  • Nicole

    Just noticed Angel's comment. I concur.

  • I enjoyed this film and did not feel it was emotionally overdone. It focussed on one family and their story of survival in this terrible event. Performances were top notch. And yes, Naomi Watts goes thru hell but it is believable and enhances the bond between mother and son. I know critics love to play with words and show how clever they can be. But the fact of the matter is-this is a GOOD film and well worth a watch when it is released.

  • Lusen

    This review sounds fair to me. Obviously someone wrote those two comments under different names, what a shame.

  • garth danicich

    It's fair to condemn a movie for being about one family rather than hundreds of thousands of people? When was the last time you saw a movie with hundreds of thousands of characters in it?

  • Uh ? Lord Of the Rings

  • Angel

    What a terrible review. Once again the politically correct police shows its stupidity. This movie is based on a true story. And it happens that the family is white. So why not enjoy the movie instead of making it about race. 20,000 white tourists died in the tsunami. Is it forbiden to tell their stories?

  • monina palmer

    this review sucks, I have red many reviews saying the same...why not an asian family, why they do not their own movie about tsunami??

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