Emotional exploitation of the most vile and insensitive kind, The Impossible is an insult to the victims of the tragedy it depicts. Set in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 tsunami which devastated South East Asia, the film makes it abundantly clear that it was in fact the wealthy white people who were the real victims of the disaster, one which left almost a quarter of a million Thais, Indonesians, Sri Lankans and Indians dead and a further 1.6 million displaced. That Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) presumably had nothing but good intentions will provide absolutely zero comfort as you suffer through what is, without question, one of the most horrendously overwrought and unequivocally disrespectful films to be screened in cinemas this century.
Woefully heavy-handed from its very first frame, The Impossible begins with a title card reminding the audience that the tsunami actually happened – an act of condescension roughly equivalent to if a film about 9/11 informed us that that was a real thing, too. The preface also claims that the film is based on the experiences of a real life Spanish family, the words “true story” even lingering on the screen, as if to provide some additional dramatic weight.
Of course one remains sceptical as to how true this story is; at the very least, we can be sure that the Spaniards looked nothing like Naomi Watts (Funny Games) and Ewan McGregor (Haywire), the English speaking Hollywood actors who do the best they can with this trite and manipulative script. Their roles are that of Maria and Henry Bennett, British expatriates on holiday in Thailand with their trio of pre-teen sons, each one younger and more adorable than the last. On the plane ride over, a woefully written exchange establishes the family dynamics while at the same time foreshadowing, without a semblance of subtlety, the horror that’s about to besiege them.
And horrific it certainly is. All qualms about the rest of the movie aside, the tsunami sequence itself is nothing short of incredible. Chaotic and violent but always comprehensible, Bayona blends seamlessly what must have been computer generated imagery with practical water tank effects, as for the next ten harrowing minutes, buildings, vehicles and people are swept through the jungle by a torrent of water and debris. It’s so viscerally disturbing that it makes you wonder who Bayona intends the film for; surely audiences schmaltzy or undiscerning enough to buy into the remaining ninety minutes will be put off – if not downright traumatised – by the intensity and bloodiness of this catalysing scene.
Unfortunately, as unrelenting as the tide is, it’s nothing compared to the melodrama. Even within the spectacular set-piece, Bayona undermines his technical brilliance with cheap emotional puppetry, like when Watts reaches for the hand of her eldest son (played decently enough by newcomer Tom Holland), their fingers almost touching before the current rips them apart. When the tide recedes the histrionics only heighten: as Holland and Watts trek through the wreckage in search of assistance, the year’s least nuanced score telegraphs each and every emotion that the audience is meant to be experiencing. Later, unable to walk any further thanks to a couple of seriously vicious looks puncture wounds, Watts is carried by a group of villagers who, despite presumably having been devastated by the disaster themselves, are happy to drop everything in aid of a suffering Caucasian.
It’s that kind of incessant, patronising sentimentality that makes The Impossible so utterly reprehensible. Barraging us with scene after scene of ludicrously heightened emotion, it’s as if Bayona think we’re incapable of feeling anything without him forcing it down our throats. At the same time there’s also a distinct lack of dramatic tension in the film, especially when, at around the sixty minute mark, we suddenly switch focus from Watts and Holland to McGregor and the two younger boys. Previously presumed dead, what’s meant to be an uplifting revelation is in reality kind of disgusting; true story or not, Bayona’s refusal to get his hands dirty and depict the tsunami’s human cost feels cowardly and disingenuous – a criminal reduction of the lives that were actually lost.
The treacle reaches poisonous levels during the ridiculous climax, a scene in which — spoiler alert — all five members of the photogenic Bennett clan find themselves in the same hospital unaware that the others are there. Dragged out to inexorable length with plenty of cross-cutting and that hideously overblown score, Bayona plucks your heart strings bloody as the searching characters traverse the corridors, almost but not quite running into each other. It’s a distillation of everything that wrong with this move: mawkish, tactless, absurd, manipulative, and above all just plain offensive.