Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Impossible (2012) – Review

Review: The Impossible is a moving drama about human perseverance in the face of extreme tragedy. The film focuses on a family of five on vacation in Thailand, Christmas 2004. They are enjoying themselves when suddenly a devastating tsunami hits their resort separating the family. Now, they must each find their way back together, as well as survive. It is based on a true story.

For the most part The Impossible plays as a disaster film, but much more intimate with its dramatic scope. The most emotionally and visually impressive scenes for the audience revolve around the massive wave that hits the resort and the immediate aftermath involving the main characters. Much like the plane crash sequence in Flight, these scenes are intense, dynamic, and very emotionally involving (and equate to probably the most spectacular moments in the film, as well as the most compelling).

Much like a typical disaster film, most of which are big Hollywood action films, it starts out with normal everyday life and then the disaster happens and then the characters deal with the consequences as they struggle to survive. However, unlike most disaster films The Impossible only concentrates on the characters in the family. Usually, these types of films have broader scopes giving the audience a more general and expansive understanding of what is going on. Here, (though not quite as intimate or dramatically intensive as Melancholia’s second half) the audience only sees things from the main characters’ perspective. This has two main effects on the narrative. First, the audience does very much relate to the struggles of the family, as they are the only dramatic access point; and second, the main characters seemingly are treated as more important than everything else by the narrative (which one could say is true of all films’ lead characters, but here all the other people caught up in the tragedy are discounted and feel trivial).

Outside of the impressive tsunami wave devastation sequences, the characters (particularly Maria, Henry, and Lucas) are the strongest aspect of the film. Their fight for survival is something the audience can easily get behind and care about, thus the audience has a stake in the characters and the narrative. They are emotionally invested in the film, which is always a good thing for a narrative to achieve. However, the narrative is split between Maria and Lucas (who find each other in the immediate aftermath of the wave) and Henry (who is with his two kids for most of the second act), and it jumps back and forth between their journeys. Director J.A. Bayona does do a good job of managing the two stories so that the audience’s focus is where it needs to be – when things slowdown in one story, he switches to the other. That said, Maria and Lucas’s story is much more emotionally compelling because Maria is likely going to die and Lucas has to take care of his mother (versus Henry and the two younger sons being relatively fine and Henry just looking for Maria and Lucas – only, the audience already knows where they are).

The end of the second act feels very hokey. After separating the family into three parties (Maria and Lucas, Henry who is looking for them, and the two younger sons who Henry left with other survivers so he could better look for Maria and Lucas), Bayona has all the characters run into each other at the hospital where Maria and Lucas have been since being rescued by locals, but draws it out as they just miss each other as they wander around, or one character sees another but cannot get their attention and runs after them. Bayona does this to play with the emotions of the audience using tension and expectation, and eventually a happy reunion. However, this type of ‘cat-and-mouse’ sequence is difficult to do without it feeling overly manipulative and blatant. Sadly, here it plainly feels like it was just inserted into the story to draw every possible emotion out of the audience (which is fine, if done right) and ultimately works contrary to all the very good drama that had come before. It takes the audience out of the drama, because they feel the hand of the director trying to emotionally guide them.

Another big issue with the narrative is that the main characters are seemingly treated in a manner placing them before everyone else. They are saved by locals when thousands of others are left to die on the side of the road. They find a place in the hospital and get immediate treatment when thousands are waiting to get in before they ever arrive. They are not only privileged by the other characters in the film, but also the whole tone of the film seems to place their needs and struggle above thousands of other faceless nameless characters (both tourists like them and locals) who seem to otherwise not matter. There might as well have not been any other people injured in the tsunami, because in this narrative it does not seem to matter. This gives the film sort of an elitist feel – like the only reason to tell a story about the tsunami is because a white family survived. The film ends with them being flown out on a private medical jet to Singapore so that they can get better treatment. The plane is fairly big, and they are the only passengers on it. Yes, this is how real life works – clearly, assuming they have money and connections, they would have privileges above the common man – but the film’s ambivalence towards all secondary characters seems to set a dismissive tone. The main characters just do whatever they want seemingly outside the bounds of what everyone else is tethered to. It just gives the film a strange feel (at least for me it did – maybe no one else felt this).

Also, all the secondary characters in the film are portrayed as being good people. Sure this is somewhat of a common aspect of disaster films, as disasters do tend to bring out the best in groups of people (while the main characters just do what they want somewhat selfishly in a societal context). But, self-interest is still a main component of the way a normal human functions (it has to be). So when all the supporting characters are selfless it seems odd – and this probably goes back to the film’s clear interest in only its main characters, all secondary characters are their just to fill up the background or briefly interact with the main characters on some superficial or plot-driven level.

The Impossible is a great drama with a visceral experience for the audience (for the most part), and for most people is going to be emotionally enveloping as it is a fantastic human story. However, it also has some grievous narrative flaws that hold it back.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: J.A. Bayona is now two films in (his first being The Orphanage, which I have not seen), and both are good. Interestingly, The Impossible was made for Spanish audiences and came out in Spain long before it was picked up for distribution in America. But, like The Orphanage, Bayona’s film was a hit in Spain and found distribution in America as well. Spain has a number of good filmmakers (chief among them Pedro Almodovar), and Bayona is certainly a rising star.

Fernando Velazquez’s score has a very sentimental feel to it, tapping into the emotional drama the characters experience. Essentially their worlds are crushed, but they must carry on and try to survive – there is still hope even when things seem bleak, which is the feeling Velazquez’s work creates. Oscar Faura’s cinematography is very good as well. The camera stays mostly close to its characters, but every so often it ventures into wide shots to give the audience more perspective of just how devastating the tsunami is.  Eugenio Caballero’s production design is fantastic. It feels as if the characters are actually in the thick of the damage and carnage, as if the filmmakers are a documentary crew.

There are only really three performances (leading or supporting) of note in the film. Tom Holland gives a breakthrough type performance as Lucas. He carries a main section of the narrative, as he desperately clings to helping his mother (as he believes his father and brothers are dead). Ewan McGregor is good as Henry, a man who just will not give up on his family. He has a heartbreaking scene in which he must call his father to tell him that he is okay but his wife and son are still missing. It might just be the best dramatic moment in the film. Naomi Watts has probably the most difficult role as Maria. She is seemingly on the brink of death, as she is badly wounded but must be strong for Lucas. She is quite good as well.

Summary & score: Emotionally compelling and intense, but narrative issues (especially in the second half) keep The Impossible from being one of the year’s best dramas. 7/10

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