The Impossible, the apparently inevitable movie on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, actually begins the same way Zero Dark Thirty does: sounds of destruction (there, the WTC crumbling; here, excess wind) over black. Zero Dark Thirty proceeds to an ambivalent look at a process that quietly questions what many perceive as a good thing. The Impossible settles for a ersatz-classic Spielberg style used to augment a tragedy that requires no additional heartstring tugs.
The actual incident doesn’t begin till the 15-minute mark, but you’d have to be pretty thick to miss so much foreshadowing. Our central family, led by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, are en route to spend Christmas Eve in Thailand. They lightly argue over whether they forgot to turn on the house alarm. At the scenic hotel, the bellhop informs them, “This is the best holiday season ever.”
Even after the tidal wave, the screenplay remains reductive in more ways than one. It sticks by this family, even as they’re separated: Watts and eldest son Tom Holland are washed far off; McGregor and two younger sons resurface elsewhere. They mingle with other foreign victims, and though the film tries to depict a polyglot that doesn’t favor one nationality over the other, it’s still overly trapped with one gateway family. When Holland orchestrates the reunion between a German father and son, the attention stays on Holland’s face: first satisfied by his actions, then morosely remembering his own errant dad. It’s all about him.
Our protagonists are based on a Spanish family. That they’ve been turned into a British family—because English is a more marketable language—is a problem, if not its most glaring. Still, there are passages when Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) calms down and is able to starkly capture the process of being reduced to a feral state, following its characters as they navigate rough terrain while bleeding from gashes of various sizes. The Impossible is thin and often offensively simplistic, but it still finds time for stretches when it doesn’t seem like a bad idea.
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