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The Impossible

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. Though it centers on the 2004 tsunami that ravaged Southeast Asia and killed 230,000 people, Juan Antonio Bayona’s film 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. As a disaster drama, it’s immersive and at points extraordinary: When the tsunami arrives, it crashes and swirls so violently that I was relieved the action wasn’t rendered in 3-D. The family of five, who minutes prior had been exchanging Christmas gifts and uninspired dialogue, is swept up in the surge. We witness the mother, Maria (Naomi Watts), receive a particularly vicious thrashing, spun as if in a blender and then flayed to the bone by debris. As she reunites with 12-year-old Lucas (Tom Holland), 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 to Maria’s husband (Ewan McGregor), who does little more than stumble through rubble while hollering for his wife. Meanwhile, the few locals are relegated to window dressing, even as the film keeps reminding us that this is a “true story,” with those words appearing twice in the title credits. 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 need not have made a by-the-book docudrama or filled the screen with suffering Asians, but he ultimately allows sap and irresponsible flights of sensationalism to trump sensitivity.
  • Running Time:
  • Release Date: Monday, January 7, 2013
  • MPAA Rating: R
  • Critic's Score: C
  • Watch the trailer

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