It's always tricky to criticize a film for what it fails to depict rather than for what it actually captures. But in The Impossible, the omission is so glaring that to disregard it would be to commit a similarly shortsighted act of complacency. Juan Antonio Bayona's film centers on the 2004 tsunami that ravaged much of Southeast Asia, killing 230,000 people. But while that horrific natural disaster creates the film's tension and provides the backdrop, The Impossible is less a tale of cataclysmic human and environmental devastation than a troublingly narrow narrative about one white, privileged, European family whose vacation is spoiled by a crushing wall of water. That's not to diminish the family's genuinely brutal and harrowing story. But in so doggedly focusing on the trials of the tourists, Bayona relegates the locals—whose lives were also upended by the tsunami, and who weren't able to hop a jet to Singapore—to window dressing.
As a disaster drama, The Impossible is immersive and at points extraordinary. After some brief exposition, during which Bayona provides shots of the tauntingly still sea, the tsunami arrives, crashing and swirling so violently that I was relieved the action wasn't rendered in 3-D. (That fit a simplistic, slack-jawed fable like Life of Pi; here it would have felt vulgar.) The family of five, who minutes prior had been exchanging Christmas gifts and uninspired dialogue, is swept up in the surging water. We witness the mother, Maria (a persuasive Naomi Watts), receive a particularly vicious thrashing, spun as if in a blender and then flayed to the bone by debris. These 10 minutes are visceral, relentless and punishing to watch, abetted by impressive yet aggressive sound design.
Bayona keeps us in his grip for a good while afterward, as Maria reunites with 12-year-old Lucas, the family's oldest son (Tom Holland). This becomes something of a loss-of-innocence story: Maria has been badly injured, and Lucas must witness her anguish and then quickly grow up in order to help her. Bayona seems to think that lingering over dirty wounds and bloody flaps of skin can make up for Sergio G. Sánchez's thin screenplay, but he's fortunate to have Holland and Watts, who both give gritty, heartfelt performances.
But the dramatic pull grows a bit sluggish when Bayona turns his attention to Maria's husband (Ewan McGregor), who has withstood the tsunami with the couple's two younger sons. Though convincingly distressed, McGregor is given little more to do than stumble through rubble while hollering for his wife. As the drama develops, not only does The Impossible hammer at your tear ducts, but its ethics grow murky. Few locals appear in the film, illustrated well by a scene at an overrun hospital, in which the camera quickly and inexplicably pans from wailing white tourists to a truck full of singing Thai children. Are they happy? Are they attempting to cheer up the downtrodden? Should we be impressed by their endurance? Or appalled they're not rushing to assist the injured Europeans? But Bayona's camera doesn't linger, and he quickly cuts back to the frantic foreigners.
The Impossible keeps reminding us that this is a "true story," with those words appearing twice in the title credits. Never mind that the actual family was Spanish—it was probably determined that wan, English-speaking actors would probably generate more box-office activity. But did we need any "true story" of this colossal tragedy adapted for the big screen, least of all one of a lavish vacation gone wrong? Bayona did not need to make a by-the-book docudrama or fill the screen with suffering Asians, but in putting such devastation on the screen, he allowed sap and irresponsible flights of sensationalism to trump sensitivity.
Critic's Grade: C
SEE IT: The Impossible is rated R. It opens Friday at Bridgeport Village, Clackamas, Fox Tower, City Center.