Spoiler Level: Nothing you don't get from the trailer.
It's estimated that a quarter of a million people lost their lives when, on December 26, 2004, an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra triggered a massive tsunami that impacted 14 countries. Indonesia was the hardest hit—with upwards of 160,000 deaths—but thousands also died in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and other nations. Millions of people across South Asia—many already living in abject poverty—lost their homes, lost their livelihoods, lost access to food and clean drinking water; hundreds of thousands more would face death from resulting infectious diseases. Measured in lives lost, it was one of the 10 most devastating earthquakes ever recorded, and the deadliest tsunami in history.
And so—forgive me for being blunt—why do I give a fuck about one family of wealthy European tourists who survived?
It's perhaps an unfair question with which to begin a review of Juan Antonio Bayona's The Impossible, but it was a question that nagged me throughout my entire viewing experience, and severely undermined my ability to appreciate the (otherwise well-made) movie.
As the film opens, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) are vacationing in Thailand with their three sons, 12-year-old Lucas (Tom Holland), 7-year-old Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and 5-year-old Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). They enjoy about 24 hours of idyllic snorkeling and paper-lantern-lighting at a beachfront resort before the disaster strikes, and it is to the film's detriment that Bayona (and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez) don't use this time to let us get to know them better. (It seems a deliberate choice—no doubt to help make their story universal—but it is a mistake: good-looking, kind, and incredibly bland, these five people seem more like the generic family from a cereal commercial than the protagonists of a major motion picture.)
The wave, when it hits, makes for an impressive few minutes of film: Bayona succeeds in conveying the unimaginable scope and scale of the disaster with horrifying realism, without ever resorting to the sort of disaster-film sensationalism we'd get from the Michael Bay/Roland Emmerich school of filmmaking. Even more harrowing are the smaller-scale POV experiences of the characters, who are plunged beneath the rushing waters and churned around as if they are in a Cuisinart filled with jagged debris. This exciting eight- or ten-minute sequence of the catastrophe itself is what most viewers will come for, and it's almost worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, it's over too soon, and so is the excitement. Maria and her oldest son, Lucas, manage—through an accidental improbability we are meant to find heroic—to stay together, and are swept inland to attempt to navigate the devastation and rubble and search for safety. (They assume the other members of the family are dead, and Bayona stays with them exclusively for a while, as though hoping a few of us who don't already know better from the trailer might think the same.) Maria is injured, and both she and her son are scared, and there are some nicely authentic moments along the way. (Watts is very good—albeit in a role that is all anguish, no arc—and young Holland is excellent as the oldest boy, who seems to grow up over a matter of hours into the kind of son any parent might wish for.)
The problem with The Impossible is that, less than half an hour after the first rumblings of the wave, we more or less know everyone in this family is safe, albeit battered and separated. This is not—however it has been billed—a survival story, for the "surviving" part is over too soon, and through no particularly heroic measures on the part of anyone concerned. It is, rather, a quest story: the suspense of the film is not whether the characters will live, but whether they will find one another in a timely fashion amidst the desolation and chaos.
And this is where I come back to my question: why do we care? Though all of the performances are fine, the characters are not engaging enough—and do not undergo sufficiently interesting development through their ordeal— to make The Impossible worth our investment. They're nice enough people, but if two of them are safe in one refugee camp, and three are in another, surely they'll all be together again eventually: why should we worry? Bayona seems to want their agonized search for one another to have the suspense and emotional impact of (for example) Dith Pran's journey in The Killing Fields—but if Dith Pran didn't get the hell out of Cambodia soon he was going to be shot. If these characters don't find each other today, they'll be united tomorrow or the next day. (It's a point that's underlined by the fact that one character manages to borrow a cell phone and call a relative in Europe; if another character had done the same, there would be no second half of the movie at all.) The final act deteriorates into phony suspense generated from Hollywood contrivances and comically missed connections: Oh no, one character showed up here a split second after the other character left! However will they find each other?
It may sound like I'm being unnecessarily prickly about this, but it's a huge problem for the film, which transforms this epic humanitarian disaster into a very small, myopically narrow story of one European family—who are all more or less fine—wandering around looking for each other. (A third-act medical scare seems as though it is included just to up the stakes and tension, but it is not enough to distract us from the film's staggering lack of perspective.) I do not mean to criticize the characters (or the real-life family upon whom they are based, however loosely): of course they are terrified, and of course finding each other is the most important thing, for them. But it is not the most important thing to us, because—if we stop for even a moment during the movie to think about it—we quickly realize that there are more crucial—and interesting—things happening here than one family's lack of cellphone reception. (I'd have to watch it again to be certain, but I'm not sure there is a single Asian voice in the film, outside of some villagers and health-care workers whose sole purpose is to tend to the White people's needs. What this disaster meant to the people who lived there is completely absent from the film.)
In researching this review, I came across this interview with Maria Belon, the Spanish woman on whom Watt's character is based. She says her first reaction when she was approached about the film was to ask, Why? "Nothing happened to us," she says. "Why, in a story full of pain and full of loss, pick up our story in which nothing happened?"
To her credit, it's an excellent, insightful question. To the film's lack of credit, it's a question The Impossible never answers.