The Impossible (2012) pulls off the impossible: creating a harrowing and heart-wrenching scenario in perhaps the most exploitative way possible and having us sit, stone-faced, almost entirely uninvested. It has brutal scenes of terrifying action and two strong performances, but it doesn’t come off the screen. That it’s too terribly true moves the needle a little, but for telling a story of an unprecedented natural disaster, it’s too by–the–numbers to have us appreciate that.
Battling injuries (the drifting Maria and Lucas are prone to dangerous belligerents gliding in the water beneath them and Maria takes a nasty stick to her side), Maria and Lucas, who is a young teen, find a hospital that looks like the overcrowded-with-injured-bodies train station in Gone With The Wind (1939). Lucas recovers nicely and checks the daily stream of people for his family, even running as a courier between other dislocated clans, but Maria struggles as the hospital’s resources and man hours get increasingly spread thin. Henry, presumed dead, turns up alive at another center for the infirmed, where he finds Thomas and Simon and avows to discover the rest of his family or whatever is left of it. The rest of the movie is about that eventual reunion.
Of course The Impossible is inspiring, the odds against this family are hard to believe, and the movie does a sly, almost sick, job of playing with our Hollywood expectations. On the plane to Thailand, the Belon family is introduced one at a time, and when presented with a disaster movie, there’s a natural tendency to size up the characters at the beginning and take mental bets about who will see the end. Maria and Henry, we calculate, are safe bets because we recognize the actors playing them, but as the movie shows us one boy after another, the chances of the whole family making it, we figure, go down exponentially. That the whole family survives is incredible and actually shames us for our callous odds-making, even if the movie was complicity allowing for it.
The tsunami scenes define intensity and are the best in the movie. Unlike a hurricane in which a community has hours if not days to prepare, the water rises up out of nowhere, unsettling during a clear day, and changes the lives of all it touches before they even get a moment to process what’s happening. This is where the movie’s power comes from. That any family, that any person, could live through this type of event is a testament to human survival. The special effects are awesome, terribly recreating a searing scene of destruction. The most effective device employed by director Juan Antonio Bayona is to mix intimate shots of Maria and Lucas being pulled through danger with wide news-style shots of the scope and magnitude of the devastation. This sequence, taken alone, is masterful.
Taken, however, as a part of a whole movie, the tsunami becomes a bright spot in an otherwise unremarkable film. When the water stops flowing so does our interest, as the search for reconciliation doesn’t have a shred of the inherent drama of the disaster scene. The bulk of the movie is missing the immediate intensity and doesn’t succeed even in delivering the urgency of the family’s situation. When members reunite, it’s moving based on the performances, not because we know what they’ve been through, which should be the case. The reconnection plot, which is the bulk of the movie, is undercooked, as we see the family in diaspora passing time or helplessly hand-wringing about each other. It’s passive when it should be active, giving us nothing to chew on. After a thrilling set-piece with the tsunami, the rest of the movie is devoid of them.
In the end The Impossible falls flat in spite of its amazing subject because after showing the broad devastation of the tsunami, in getting specific, it disengages us. The Belons’ survival, while inspiring and heart-warming, didn’t seem like one story among thousands, but was treated as if it were the only one. The movie doesn’t show the scope of a disaster that took the lives of more than 200,000 people, presenting the tsunami as if the world had conspired simply to ruin this white family’s Boxing Day, and as soon as they get out of Dodge, the disaster can be forgotten about. No movie could encompass the entire thing, I imagine, and The Impossible demands to be seen for its treatment of the tsunami itself, but for everything else, it falters.