“The Impossible” is hands-down the worst movie of 2012. When the day comes that “The Complete Hack’s Guide to Filmmaking” is published, there will be at least three whole chapters devoted to the hackishness of “The Impossible.” It is a movie where no cliché or genre trope is too hoary, no bit of crass manipulation is too much and overkill is the only option.
The film is based on the true story of María and Enrique Balón (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor), and their family surviving the infamous 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand, but let’s be real here: this movie isn’t about that. This is about pandering to every f—king award ceremony on the planet and making money off of the exploitation of a horrible tragedy. It’s as though J.A. Bayona and company were all clamoring like children: “Look at me, look at me! I made a movie!” Yes, you did. And it sucks. Go to your rooms.
The film’s most glaring issue is the blatant whitewashing and cultural denial that is present in every single frame. The Balón family is Spanish in real life, but their nationalities have inexplicably been changed to British for the film. You know, ‘cause Americans can’t relate to people who don’t speak English (or something).
In addition, almost every single scene depicting the suffering of the many victims focuses exclusively on the white tourists. Hey, what about the Thai people? They lost their homes. They lost family members, too. “Ah, f—k ‘em,” Bayona seems to say. “Won’t anyone think of the poor upper-middle-class white people?” When we do see Thai people, it’s almost always because they’re there to help the white protagonists.
Also problematic is the constant sensationalism of the numerous lengthy scenes of suffering and destruction. While the effects in the scenes of the tsunami striking land are handled fairly well, Bayona directs them as though it were an action/horror film instead of true events. As such, the editing is often too frantic and incomprehensible to get a sense of scope or even what’s going on at any given moment, and the music is equally overblown. For instance, there’s also a ludicrous scene in which María and an unnamed woman begin coughing up blood simultaneously in a hospital while the soundtrack goes crazy with high-pitched violins like it’s “Psycho,” and an earlier scene where ominous music plays over shots of the ocean.
But the most egregious example of this is a moment after María and her oldest son begin to search for survivors, when the son looks down and sees a large flap of skin and muscle hanging down from María’s leg. And for some reason, she hadn’t even noticed that before, or even been limping. But after that, they take every. Single. Opportunity to show how gross and hideous that leg wound is, just for extra shock value. It’s almost loving, the way the camera focuses on that leg.
And of course, there are all the cheap emotional manipulation and clichés you’d expect from award bait of this caliber. The tinkly piano during “heartwarming” moments. The withholding of information for as long as possible so the audience can expect the worst. The director going out of his way to get as many shots of the cast screaming/crying/withering (with Shaky Cam, of course, because Shaky Cam is “real”) as possible, just so they can have Oscar Winning PerformancesTM. And, worst of all, the inevitable scene where separated loved ones just barely miss seeing each other. We know they’re going to meet up, stop milking this crap.
For all this posturing, however, the film is bankrupt when it comes to themes or characters. Character development is on par with (of course) the average Roland Emmerich film, so there’s not much in the way of people to identify with. There are cheesy and overly simplistic attempts at symbolism with stars and lanterns just so the filmmakers can blather about how this film is a Serious MovieTM, which just makes it more obvious that the “triumph of the human spirit” story was done in a much less clichéd manner in “Life of Pi,” and a harrowing and difficult time in recent world history was dramatized much better and without gratuitous sentiment in “Zero Dark Thirty.”
If you want to make a film about a major tragedy, fine. But don’t just give the middle finger to reality so you can jerk the audience around instead of telling a story.
Speakeasy Grade: F
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
Rated PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity