Disaster without exploitation

In the past few years it seems disaster movies have been becoming more and more popular for all the wrong reasons. Numerous films have recently looked to catastrophes just for their spectacle, and have absolutely no intimacy. So when a film decides to focus on one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory, the dread that the trend will continue is more than warranted. Luckily, this is far from the case for The Impossible.

The film handles the story of these characters with care, and never cheapens their journey for the sake of exploitation. The story revolves around Henry (Ewan McGregor), Maria (Naomi Watts, whose performance has been recognized with an Academy Award), and their three sons on vacation in Thailand when the 2004 tsunami hits and ravages the coast.

Many directors would have opted to have the tsunami play out from afar, giving the viewer a full glimpse of the giant wave as it consumes numerous tiny CGI people. Fortunately, Juan Antonio Bayona is not like most directors, and having a real artist at the helm of this film elevates it beyond the manipulative tearjerker it very well could have been. His decision to focus solely on one character as she struggles to survive when the wave hits not only transforms the moment into one of the most terrifying scenes of the year, it also makes it clear that the filmmakers were not trying to turn the tragedy of so many people into popcorn entertainment.

The first 30 minutes alone are worth the price of admission, and the rest of the film doesn’t lose much momentum. Watts gives a powerhouse performance, and the 16-year-old Tom Holland is remarkable as her eldest son, Lucas, carrying the film for stretches where most young actors would have faltered

Even during the film’s more contrived moments, where you can guess how a particular scene will end, the cast gives every moment weight, and the audience comes to root for characters who are unfortunately a bit underwritten in terms of their backstory. However, the most remarkable thing is that the film is based on the real story of a family’s fight for survival.

But this brings me to the most glaring problem with The Impossible. Like so many others films before it, it decides not to focus on the locals—the people whose homes and communities have been destroyed. Instead, they focus on the rich white family who are just visiting. Now, I understand that there are reasons why this has to happen: to secure budgeting, and to try to sell a more relatable story to the western market. I also do not want to diminish the hardships that this real-life family faced, as their incredible story was truly inspiring. The most unusual thing about the film is that the real-life family was not British, as the cast is, but Spanish. In a film made by an almost exclusively Spanish crew about Spanish people, why were they not able to cast actual Spaniards? There is certainly no lack of talented Spanish movie stars.

However, most of these problems were quickly forgotten while I was watching the film. The incredibly absorbing filmmaking and gut-wrenching performances more than make up for the fairly predictable screenplay and the issues with the production. The journey taken with these characters is compelling, the visuals are enthralling, and the experience, while not flawless, is one you shouldn’t miss. MMMM

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