It takes a special amount of self-sabotage to completely undercut the natural emotions we as human beings have in witnessing an unspeakable tragedy, and yet director J.A.Bayona manages to do just that with the eye-rolling forced drama of THE IMPOSSIBLE, which is based on the true story of a family who managed to survive intact during the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Thailand. The premise of a family of five being separated during this horrendous ordeal and fighting their way back to each other should be enough to pull at your heart strings as you endure their struggle for survival alongside them. You’re left to suffer through their worst fears with them, only imagining what it would feel like or what you would do to be in their shoes in a similar situation, making their eventual reunion all the more emotional and celebratory. The idea that these people somehow overcome every obstacle that the universe puts in their way just to be rejoined should be enough. But Bayona and his screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez get so heavy-handed in their attempts to build any type of tension in the story by having all five members in the same place at the same time, yet somehow missing each other, as if something off a mediocre primetime sitcom that THE IMPOSSIBLE frankly becomes embarrassing to watch. Does such a story really need such tricks in order to drum up your worst fears as an audience member that these people may never get connected again, and that they’ll just keep looking unsuccessfully for the rest of the family? Nope, and it makes the impossible possible by turning this terrible turn of events that actually happened into a bit of a joke. Well done.
Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry, a fairly well-off married couple, who decide to take their three sons to the Orchard Beach Resort in Thailand for a nice Christmas family vacation. Only those wishes quickly go bad with a pretty intense and amazing tsunami sequence that has Watts swept away with her oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) while McGregor and the other two boys are nowhere to be found in the nearby general area. Bayona is able to capture the scope of the devastation left behind by the tsunami, while putting you right into the raging waters with Watts and Holland as they struggle for oxygen and to find anything to hold onto that might keep them in one place for a bit rather than further downstream into more unknown dangers. It’s in these moments that Bayona gives off a bit of hope towards THE IMPOSSIBLE that he will not soften the blow of what’s to come, that he will give you a true account of the horrors that followed once this tsunami hit the shore.
But that isn’t always to be, with Bayona opting for a more positive tone to THE IMPOSSIBLE as Lucas roams around the medical camp where his mom is, trying to do the good deeds of locating loves ones for complete and total strangers while Watts lay in tremendously bad condition, awaiting surgery that will hopefully save her badly injured leg but also her life. With death potentially on Maria’s doorstep, it seems awfully hokey and far from genuine to have Lucas trying to be helpful as a young adolescent after everything he’s already seen when the one piece of family he knows is alive deteriorating quickly. It’s a cheap way to try to make you feel better about what’s going on, especially since we really shouldn’t be feeling optimistic or happy when you take into account the loss that everyone else around this family is feeling. At some point in time, in assuming this family will get back together, they’re going to get to leave and go back home, as the rest of Thailand deals with the aftermath of this natural disaster. Therefore, the real celebration should be saved for that eventual moment. Peppering the film with these small victories only serves to show how awesome this family is at being good people, taking away from the dire situation that existed on the ground in Thailand back in 2004. I’m not even sure why others who are going through their own personal ordeals in locating their own loved ones continue sacrificing things for this particular family. What is it that’s so special about Ewan McGregor that someone would give up your cell phone with very limited battery, so he can contact someone back in London and have a way too long conversation with them, while others don’t have the benefit of doing the same? Were there sob stories just not as compelling in order to warrant communication with their families, letting them know they were okay? I guess not.
THE IMPOSSIBLE treats this family as if they’re some special breed, and they’re really not. If they were the inspiring humanitarians Bayona depicts them as for much of the film, then they’d be sticking around to help others in Thailand recover once they were all together again, not hightailing it back to the comforts of their own home the first chance they got. And yes, I get that Watts had just gone through a medical procedure, but if they were all running off to help those in need when it was inconvenient for them, why would that change at all when it was a little more convenient to lend some aid?
This film just tries too hard to manipulate emotions out of you. There is no opportunity for you possibly feel something on your own, as THE IMPOSSIBLE puts forth a ridiculous amount of effort to try to force you to feel something. It’s too bad that those attempts are so transparent you can see them coming a mile away, and the only emotions THE IMPOSSIBLE is then able to generate within you are ones of disgust and contempt. Had the film just been able to follow a more natural and simpler story path about these people who, with plenty of luck and maybe the grace of God, find themselves together again when they probably shouldn’t, it might have been fine. Instead it opts for trickery to try to bring about some tears, leaving behind a film beyond rescue.
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