The Impossible

The catastrophe happened on the day after Christmas, and the movie about it has a mildly nauseating whiff of calculation for holiday-season release. Of course, show business being a business, some calculation is required, and this thing looks like it might have been pretty expensive to make. It does, after all, recreate one of the deadliest of natural disasters in recorded history.

The engine of The Impossible is the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, last seen in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter and before that in real life, when it killed hundreds of thousands of people in more than a dozen countries. Survivors included one Spanish family on a Christmas vacation in Thailand, who found themselves separated and thoroughly battered but then safely reunited against odds so long that the movie’s title only slightly exaggerates them.

You can’t make this stuff up, but apparently you can anglicize it: What’s curious about The Impossible is that its makers, including screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez and director Juan Antonio Bayona, are Spaniards themselves, but the family in the film consists of an Englishman (Ewan McGregor), his English wife (Naomi Watts), and their three English kids. Is this just another round of that familiar film game by which the French people in Les Misérables speak with UK accents? Or something more insidious?

One school of moviemaking thought holds that the best way into enormity is by the narrowest possible path. Thus Schindler’s List isn’t about the entirety of the Holocaust; it’s just about Schindler’s list. There is wisdom in this approach, a useful comprehension of narrative and cinematic limitations. But one such limitation is the ease with which that same strategy can go wrong and become tactlessly reductive, its ostensibly necessary omissions suddenly seeming downright sinful.

In the case of The Impossible, the movie medium still is very powerful, but also still very obviously inadequate to the task of accounting for a quarter-million dear and violently departed souls. Does it help matters, necessarily, to frame that story around one tourist family’s ruined vacation? Not so much, especially if the Thai villagers who attend to them, and even the local emergency workers, seem merely like extensions of their blankly servile hotel staff.

It is likely that nowhere will complaints of ethnocentrism in The Impossible be registered more loudly than in the population hubs of white English-speaking critics who live far away from the Indian Ocean. So it should be noted that reportedly many tsunami survivors were among the movie’s background cast and crew, and have expressed sincere gratitude for its production. As for the protagonists, it isn’t that being vacationing foreigners — whether Spanish or English or anything else — makes their story seem less remarkable. It’s that the movie itself does.

The structure is straightforward to the point of banality: first we’re waiting for the big wave, then we’re watching it, then we’re wading through its aftermath. The scenes of devastation do show great technical skill. What The Impossible lacks is conviction, a final decision on whether it’s a disaster movie, a horror movie, or a sappy triumph-of-the-human-spirit type of thing. Can’t a movie be all three? Maybe a movie can, but not this one.

To their great credit, Watts and McGregor both manage to avoid the heavy self-importance that often attends cinematic recreations of recent and regrettable history. As the oldest of the three boys, young Tom Holland makes an elegant display of assimilation, assuming burdensome new responsibilities within his family, helping other survivors, and generally growing up very quickly. Some of this movie’s hokiest stuff, of which there’s a lot, rests on his shoulders, and he carries it nimbly. From now on other films, if they know what’s good for them, will be snapping him up.

Bayona’s previous film was a ghost story, The Orphanage, another tale of a riven family and in that case a supernatural fiction of surprising resonance. Tellingly, perhaps, The Impossible involves both a readymade horror and a basis in truth but barely any resonance at all. Its admirers may protest, calling it the kind of movie that makes you want to hug your kids. That’s fine. It’s also the kind that abets the perverse privilege of sitting through a terrible event from a safe distance yet again. Given these many calculations, maybe its budget would’ve been better spent on more direct disaster relief instead.