Saturday, January 5, 2013

Review: "The Impossible"

Director: J.A. Bayona
Runtime: 114 minutes

It's not easy making a movie about a tragedy, especially if said tragedy occurred less than a decade ago. There's the danger of cheap exploitation, and not just within the emotional confines of the story. And that's what makes J.A. Bayona's The Impossible, which is by no means flawless, such a noteworthy achievement. At the end of the day, people were paid to make a movie about very real (and far-reaching) devastation, suffering, and loss. Yet Bayona and his collaborators deserve credit for telling this true story with a level of maturity and respect that avoids turning the 2004 tsunami into overwrought, sensationalist entertainment.

Opening two days before the tsunami, Bayona's film centers on Maria and Henry Bennett (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor), a British couple vacationing in Thailand with their sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). After enjoying a lovely Christmas morning, the family partakes in a number of activities at their upscale hotel. The next morning, however, they, like countless others, are torn apart as a wall of water smashes through the area, devastating natural and man-made structures alike. 

However, anyone paying the least bit of attention to the film's promotion knows one crucial fact: the entire family survives the tragedy. This means that, as a film, The Impossible needs to rely on more than just the question of whether the family will be reunited; the specifics of their struggle have to come to the forefront. And that's one of this film's strengths. First and foremost is Bayona's handling of the tsunami, which avoids turning the catastrophe into the sort of disaster porn that one might find in a Roland Emmerich blockbuster. The scenes of the family struggling in the raging waters are compelling, but they never feel overblown. If anything, certain stylistic flourishes lend greater insight into the physical struggles people faced. The most successful of these are the underwater shots, filled with tilting camera angles and furious, swirling imagery. It's been said that being submerged in the tsunami felt like being trapped in a washing machine, and Bayona captures that effect with a harrowing, white knuckle intensity. 

But the film doesn't get caught up in the chaos of the tidal wave. Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez are, first and foremost, focused on the story of survival and the triumph of the human spirit even in the worst of times. The scenes of the family struggling in the raging waters are already exhausting, and The Impossible doesn't go overboard with them, thereby allowing them to never run out of impact. Just as impressive is the treatment of the rest of the family's journey, which begins with its focus on Maria and Lucas. 

And though there's not much to work with on paper, the cast, thankfully, turns in nice work, even if they're working with blank slates. This is a film about circumstances, not character, which limits what the actors can really achieve. But Watts, McGregor, and Holland are all compelling presences, and their looks of exhaustion and anguish never feel redundant or strained. At the same time, it remains difficult to find anything extraordinary in the performances, as the emotional impact is achieved through the broader themes and events, rather than the specifics of the individuals at the narrative's core.

Where The Impossible becomes a little wobbly, however, is in some of its less physically demanding sequences. Some dialogue, especially for the three children, feels rather stiff, and at times even jarring to hear coming out of such young characters. Suffice it to say that the film handles the overarching components well, but stumbles when it comes to the particulars of character interactions. Writing quibbles aside, the film engages in some needless (albeit brief) moments involving various members of the family just barely missing each other as they wander around a chaotic Thai hospital. 

But perhaps the film's biggest weakness is Fernando Velazquez's score, which often feels like leftover tracks from the latest Almodovar film. The raw emotion on display is compelling enough, yet there are too many instances where the score either telegraphs an emotion too soon, or simply becomes overbearing. What should be one of the film's most powerful moments is nearly sunk by the surging music that floods over the entire scene. In a movie that successfully blends compelling film making techniques and upfront emotional impact, the use of such forced music seems wildly out of place. Once The Impossible winds down to its final moments, the sense of authenticity largely returns, but there are enough rough spots here and there that hold the film back. However, Bayona deserves credit for his treatment of the '04 tsunami, and how he is able to make the film suitably wrenching without exploiting or cheapening the suffering of thousands. If anything, The Impossible is an anti-disaster movie, and should, at least, be given some recognition for its treatment of such destruction with such a visceral, yet still human, vision.

Grade: B 

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