The trouble with The Impossible, which tells the story of a family whose Christmas vacation in Thailand is regrettably disrupted by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, isn’t that it arrives “too soon,” but that there will never be an appropriate time for a film that so dubiously depicts the toll of one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. Like Paul Greengrass’s United 93, whose purpose was to stylishly simulate rather than make sense of the events aboard United Airlines Flight 93 on 9/11, The Impossible uses the tropes of countless horror films and thrillers before it to craft a this-is-what-it-was-like theme-park attraction.
Maybe its inane title is intended in part as cheeky self-defense, but The Impossible‘s most elaborate fiction is to depict the tsunami as a terror with a Caucasian bias. Even after Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) have been swept away by the monster wave that descends on their beach resort, there’s never a sense of the Thai people’s suffering, only of the anxiety whites suffer after being separated from one another. Not that the film need address the injury, death, and displacement suffered by the Thai populace, but to suggest that the Thai experience of the ordeal was exclusively as saviors of white men and women and their cherubic tots is a blatant distortion of truth, and one that veers odiously into magical-negro terrain when a local appears above a hallucinating Maria with the angelic light of the sun glowing around his head, dragging her through the detritus of the tsunami’s aftermath and to a nearby hospital.
This ghoulish film’s many insults, among them histrionically scored montages of the main characters’ separation anxiety and director Juan Antonio Bayona’s distrust of Watt’s phenomenal talent (her character’s grief over the presumed death of her family is implicit without that cloying pan down to her wedding ring), aren’t exactly unprecedented. You may remember the creep who, back in 2008, deemed the tsunami insufficiently dramatic and as such scored footage from the catastrophe to the Kronos Quartet. And before that was Bayona’s own first feature, the histrionically over-praised The Orphanage, a magpie’s moody tapestry of notations to other filmmakers’ great moments. That art-house spooker, in which HIV and the faces of children with Down’s syndrome were unbelievably used as scare tactics, revealed the Spanish filmmaker both as a sturdy craftsman and man of questionable scruples.
The film isn’t particularly beholden to the trappings of the prestige picture, though it exhibits flashes of the tongue-clucking bad habits of Oscar-mongering drivel like The Constant Gardener. A pair of complementary scenes standout as a harangue about goodwill in times of crisis: first a bourgie, unaffected by the tsunami only insofar as he can’t immediately catch a flight back home, refuses to let Henry use his phone; later, sitting among survivors also separated from their families, Henry is allowed to waste a man’s minutes in what amounts to an impromptu kumbaya production of E.T.‘s farewell to Elliott. Worse, the epiphanies are hackneyed, as in Henry and Maria’s pubescent son, Lucas (Tom Holland), learning to appreciate his mother by enduring the tsunami by her side, and at times purple, such as Lucas’s younger brothers, separated from their presumably dead family and trucked to a mountain with a bunch of other survivors, being subjected by Geraldine Chaplin to a spiel about the life and death of stars.
Otherwise, The Impossible isn’t exactly interested in making you feel good, even when reminding us of how nice it is when tragedy brings people together. Genre thrills are Bayona’s game, and his excitement is evident in the film’s impressive state-of-the-art special effects (people and debris pulsed together beneath raging ocean waters as if caught in an industrial-grade blender) and horror-movie makeup (Maria’s sallow face and the flap of skin that dangles from her leg). But his moves are often inane: the gratuitously eardrum-piercing sound of the plane that takes Maria, Henry, and the boys to their vacation retreat sets the film’s taste level right away; the ball from The Changeling makes a series of guest appearances throughout scenes that nail-bitingly delight in the dispersed characters just missing finding each other at various points; and most unbelievably, the sea, prior to the tsunami, gets its own ludicrously ominous point-of-view shot. In the end, The Impossible is a sham realist’s disaster movie, tackily insulting the deaths of 300,000 people by reducing the horrors of the Indian Ocean tsunami to a series of genre titillations.