J.A. Bayona’s The Impossible contains some of the most spectacular, breathtaking filmmaking you’re likely to see anywhere. Really, if there were ever a film to watch on the big screen, this is it. Unfortunately, the movie is mixed with some of the cheesiest, contrived family drama you can imagine. Following his understated — and near perfect — horror debut, The Orphanage (2007), Bayona confirms himself as a master craftsman. What The Orphanage did not foretell is a director with this kind of sentimental Oscar bait in him (unless we simply have a director bowing to the whims of a poor script).
The film is based on the true story of the Belon family and their efforts to survive after being split apart by the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people. Here, the Spanish Belons are portrayed by a very British family, headed by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, as the film opens with the couple and their three children vacationing in Thailand for Christmas. But soon their picturesque vacation is interrupted by one of the deadliest natural disasters ever recorded.
The film can be best described as a disaster film, though the sensitive nature of its true story — along with Bayona’s more serious-minded aspirations —is rarely sensationalistic in the way we think about this type of movie. This doesn’t keep Bayona from being unflinchingly brutal and occasionally nasty in many respects, as The Impossible doesn’t shy away from the death, injury, trauma and wholesale destruction this disaster caused. The tsunami sequence itself is handled in a highly cinematic way, showing the true power and violence of it all, but this isn’t Roland Emmerich we’re dealing with here. There’s a definite sense of the fragility of human life as seen through the injury and the damage the tsunami wrought.
The film really wants to inspire and paint a picture of the immutable power of the human spirit, which is where the film starts to slowly unravel. This is a difficult path for a film to take without turning into mawkish schmaltz, and The Impossible hits every sappy note. Bayona allows the procedings to become a bit too wide-eyed and cheesy, right up until its eye-rolling climax (which left me with the impression that no one had a clue about how to end this thing), as the movie ties things up in a disappointingly convenient and contrived manner.
By this point, Bayona has spent all his goodwill from the first chunk of the film, and we’re left with a movie that feels both far-fetched and emotionally gooey. There are not a lot of films out there more solidly constructed, but as far as engaging, thoughtful storytelling — beyond simple technical skill or dramatic histrionics — The Impossible is ultimately a disappointment. Rated PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity.
Starts Friday at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14 and other, as yet unconfirmed, theaters