There is something unsettling about The Impossible and it is not the 30 foot waves that displaced close to 1.7 million people. In an attempt to capture the emotional weight of one family’s incredible plight, the film inadvertently perpetuates many of the racial stereotypes that still exist in the studio system. The main one being the notion that audiences are only able to truly connect to stories involving white characters. Similar to Argo, The Impossible is yet another film based on a true story where the lead characters, whose are of Hispanic descent, is being portrayed by a white actor/actress.
Director Juan Antonio Boyona has openly stated in interviews that he changed the ethnicity of the main family because he could secure more funding for the film with marquee stars. As sad as it is that we live in an age where minority actors are still not viewed as valuable commodities by investors or studios, the lead casting in The Impossible is far from the most infuriating aspect about the film. It is the fact that the film centers around the 2004 tsunami, yet the majority of the victims shown in the film are wealthy white tourists that is truly disturbing. The Thai people in the film are reduced to nameless entities whose only job is to help the white tourist.
Based on the Belón-Alvárez family’s harrowing true life experience, the film tells the story of the Bennet family. Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor), Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) travelled to Thailand for the Christmas Holidays. On December 26, 2004 the family, as well as many in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia, were caught off guard when a series of tsunamis struck. Maria, who is severely wounded, and Lucas soon find themselves separated from the rest of the family in the aftermath of the devastation. After finding his two youngest sons, Henry sets out on a journey to reunite his family at all cost.
Considering that this uplifting film is called The Impossible, it is not too hard to figure out how the story will end. Boyona’s film is designed to both inspire and evoke as many tears as possible. This is not to say that the journey that the family took is not a touching one. The obstacles they had to endure are simply astounding. This is especially evident in the most gripping moments of the film, the tsunami itself.
The tsunami sequence is one of the most impressive recreations of a natural disaster ever seen on the big screen. In the span of ten minutes Boyona successfully makes the audience feel the disorienting terror that those who faced it firsthand felt. It is a powerful moment that not only leaves the viewers feeling battered and bruised, but also helps to establish the emotional tone of the film. It is just unfortunate that Boyona does not trust the audience enough to let the film’s emotions evolve naturally.
The Impossible tries too hard to evoke sympathy and tears through manipulation. For every scene of genuine heart, Boyona provides two more scenes where he beats the audience over the head with the symbolism. It is as if Boyona is trying his hardest to ensure there is not a single dry eye in the theatre. The problem with this though is that the manipulative aspects actually take viewers out of the film. An example of this can be found when Thomas and Simon are taken away at one point. Boyona never fully explores why this occurs or who is responsible, all the audience knows is that the mysterious bus driver has no problem lingering around at an unscheduled rest stop just long enough for there to be another big emotional moment. At times it almost feels as if a queue card will appear with “cry now” written in bold.
If you take away the stunning tsunami sequences and the strong performances from Watts and McGregor, what is left is a film that never resonates the way it should. While the story of Belón-Alvárez family is a powerful one, the film takes too many liberties for the sake of squeezing out every last bit of emotion. As a result, The Impossible reduces the family’s experience, and the overall impact of the tsunami on Asia, to nothing more than a hollow film about what wealthy tourists had to endure. Those looking to find a deeper story, or the South and South-East Asian experience during the tsunami, need to look elsewhere.