'The Impossible': Real events undone by reel spectacle
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"The Impossible," Juan Antonio Bayona's film depicting the survival of one family in Indonesia during a 2004 tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in four countries, is both majestic and manipulative, spectacular and appalling. Married parents on holiday Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) are blasted apart like a bundle of matchsticks by a dark wall of water and pure force depicted like a fist of God sweeping over the land. Separated, they then fight to find each other, or find each other dead -- each in charge of a portion of their three children -- over a blasted terrain so brutal and blood-soaked in its squalor you shudder. With the spectacle and the terror, and with each wound depicted with the kind of precision and depth that the apostle Thomas demanded and received from the arisen Jesus, the technique is unquestionable. The question of why is more difficult to answer.
Bayona's prior film, 2007's "The Orphanage" was a lumpy, bumpy old-fashioned fright flick, full of slow dread and whip-quick jump-scares, both superbly executed. He brings that kind of craftsman's appreciation of blood and sound and silence here; the sound editing alone is a symphony of dread and agony. Yet when non-practicing Maria is talking her son Tom Holland through finding the right medicines in an Indonesian hospital when doctors and help are not forthcoming, it made me think that Bayona wasn't inspired by the work of maxi-realist directors like Michael Mann or Kathryn Bigelow or Christopher Nolan or Ridley Scott, but rather by the '70s spectacles of Irwin Allen and his '90s follower Roland Emmerich. And when that let-me-talk-you-through-it scene was followed by another, worse variation on the same theme, you have to question the ratio of sympathy to showmanship.
W. H. Auden cautioned against "those who read the Bible for its prose," and a similar sense of moral confusion underlay what I felt watching "The Impossible." I can respect Bayona's craft, but his depiction of shocked, wounded humans in stark agony can be unrelenting. And at the same time, you know in your heart the reality had to be infinitely worse. Never mind the fact that the real family whose survival this film depicts were Spanish -- we see their photo before the end credits -- any other rational judgment of McGregor and Watts' performance is clouded by the feeling that some of their acting moments are meant less as ways to present a character for your commiseration but more instead to present an actor For Your Consideration.
Later on, when Bayona not only flashes back to the bone-crunching, flesh-puncturing agony one character endured, but depicts every injury, impalement and trauma in a sequence we before had cut by darkness and silence, every agonizing moment of the crisis, every blow and wound, is depicted with effects and acting. That culminates in a floating-to-the-light vision that's a strobing psych-out circle of wonder with floating corpses as the ever-shifting kaleidoscope tiles, an LSD freak-out by the Marquis de Sade.
"The Impossible" is a confounding misfire: so much artistic vision, combined with moral and emotional shortsightedness. By focusing on Maria and Henry and their children, the film essentially turns the death and suffering and pain of the Indonesian community around them into a backdrop. (To be fair, most blockbusters hinge on depicting the death of nameless, faceless multitudes, but this isn't "The Avengers" or "Godzilla" -- this happened, and it was devastating, and there's some real moral weight to that.) There are few, if any, speaking parts for the actual residents of the area, and while the real family depicted did survive, it's hard to reconcile that with the tens or hundreds of thousands who didn't. With its title explained in a dialogue sequence about the light and life of stars that groans with clichés, "The Impossible" turns a tale of random chance sparing one family from death while others suffered into a feel-good tale, a victory lap through a field of unnamed corpses with fortune-cookie platitudes as the prize. Again, Bayona's skills as a director are impeccable; the material he's picked here, and how he's chosen to handle it, are far more problematic.