The Impossible (2012) is Impossible to Sit Through

A story meant to be heartfelt only frustrates with its all-white cast and manipulative storytelling.
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I’m going to be incredibly blunt in this review: I hated The Impossible.  It’s been described as realistic, moving, and life-affirming.  I counter that with words like manipulative, bloated, and shameful.  Actress Naomi Watts is nominated as a Best Actress contender for this film, and to that I ask: Was Nicole Kidman’s role in The Paperboy too good?  I need to actually explain why I hated this film right?  Okay, here goes.

the impossibleThe Impossible depicts the events of the 2004 tsunami that decimated Thailand, Indonesia, and other locations in the Indian Ocean.  Maria and Henry Bennett (Watts, Ewan McGregor) have brought their three boys to Thailand for a vacation.  Unfortunately, the deadly tsunami separates them and they all must struggle to survive and find each other.

I clearly remember the 2004 tsunami and the decimation it brought to countries like Indonesia.  The locations were utterly destroyed, and many of them still suffer to this day.   When The Impossible’s first trailer debuted, there was a lot of back and forth about the changes made to the true story it was depicting.  Maria and Enrique Belon, along with their three sons, did go through the events detailed in the film; however, the Belon’s are Spanish.  Sure, it’s been reported that Maria Belon wanted Naomi Watts cast, but I have to wonder if the studio told her to go with marketing potential in mind. 

Ultimately, I felt absolutely zero connection to the Bennets.  Not only are they whitewashed, they’re highly privileged.  They’re able to travel, first-class no less as depicted in the opening, and are staying in a swank resort.  Inside the aforementioned resort are exclusively white people; and once the tsunami hits the only people seen are white!  One moment shows a shot of people on the side of the road, all of whom are white!  You don’t see an actual Thai citizen until thirty minutes in, and they seem to be fine!  As Maria and her son Lucas (Tom Holland) are walking, after the events, kindly Thai people clothe and care for them.  They live in impoverished circumstances, but we never see their devastation (even though citizens were hit far harder than tourists).

The only residents of Thailand we see are benevolent helpers, or separated patients at a hospital.  Hell, a subplot involves Maria and Lucas finding a little boy in the decimation.  Guess what color that little boy is?  He’s blond-haired and blue-eyed! 

If you’re not screaming by this point, let me detail you my favorite scene.  It’s a near-death experience Maria is having.  As she floats in the tsunami waters, and floats up to a white light, two native children sink around her!  Yep, that sums up the movie right there.  Director Juan Antonia Bayona is quoted as saying he wanted to remove race from the film, and make its themes universal.  I believe he reinforced and separated this tragedy in the haves and the have-nots.  At the end of the movie, the Bennetts go home to happiness and privilege as the residents of Thailand are left to figure it out for themselves.  Then again, they apparently don’t matter as the film doesn’t showcase their plights at all.  I was left highly disturbed, and all the white caused me to feel guilty, not life-affirmed.

The acting itself is mediocre at best.  The three boys are the best, if only because you can tell they’re not acting.  Young Tom Holland is a superior talent for a boy his age.  He’s cute, defiant, and courageous.  If this movie focused purely on him, I’d have probably liked it.  Little Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast as Thomas and Simon are also adorable, and react appropriately to their given situations.  There’s no artifice in their acting.  It’s organic to the situation.  Ewan McGregor is good, but he seemed irrelevant.  He’s got one strong moment that screams “Oscar,” when he’s calling his father-in-law, but other than that, I really feel anyone could have played the role. 

This brings us to Naomi Watts.  Is this an Academy Award-winning role?  Hell no.  If laying on your back suffering for 120 minutes is Oscar-worthy, than why didn’t Eric Stoltz get nominated for Anaconda?  Sure she goes through Hell, but I didn’t see anything that seemed exceptional.  Watts is determined and protective.  Is it because she plays a mother struggling to reunite with her kids against the odds?  If that’s the case, than it seems a shallow reason to give someone such a prestigious award.

This brings me to how manipulative The Impossible is.  It’s almost 120 minutes, and the tsunami hits right at the 15-minute mark.  The film is jaggedly cut into two pieces; the first involving Maria and Lucas, the other with Henry, and still a third involving the other two boys.  At a certain point, around the hour mark when everyone is reunited you start to ask “where else could we need to go in 30 minutes?”  It feels way too plodding.  Characters make decisions to split up that make little sense.  Henry leaves his children with strangers, and then is surprised when the strangers meet him without the children!  The last 30 minutes involves the old trope of “will they see each other” moments where characters just miss each other.  We know how this ends; why drag out the time with unnecessary manipulation?  The film just yearns for you to “feel” for it, that every scene starts blindly searching for heartstrings to tug.  Unfortunately, the sheer abundance of wealthy white people you meet makes that…impossible.  Get it; it’s about as stupid a pun as this movie is.

I understand that there are some people who might find this to be inspirational, but The Impossible feels artificial.  When the movie needs a quick scene of sympathy they’ll include an aerial shot of the island, but how demeaning is that to the people who live there; that still suffer.  I couldn’t connect with this family, and ultimately The Impossible shows that there’s no face in showing events to people they truly happened to.  Without big, American (and predominantly white) names, Hollywood has no face in the work itself.  The Impossible takes a tragic event, and boils it down to one family who could quickly leave when things they go bad.  To them, it’s a tragic vacation from Hell, to the people still living there; it’s their life. 

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