Dec 22, 2012

The Impossible

The only authentic part of this movie by J.A Bayona (The Orphanage) is the spectacular, utterly realistic recreation of the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2006. The special effects are truly extraordinary, but the movie, sadly, is not. All the attention of the filmmakers seems to have gone into the creation of the special effects at the expense of character, or arc, or anything resembling a fully realized story. It has a very weak script. Mind you, I cried like a banshee at the sight of blatantly manipulative human emotion under extreme duress; beautifully enacted by all the amazing blonde and English speaking actors who portray the Spanish family upon whose real story the film is based.
Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and the three outstanding young actors who play their kids, deliver real emotion in spades. If it weren't for them, the movie would be dangerously close to a dud.
The problem is that the filmmakers have decided to abandon authenticity for the promise of global box office success. I'm not sure the bet will pay off, at least here in the States. The screening I saw yesterday night (Friday opening) was almost empty.
Now, The Impossible is a full-fledged Spanish production: from director J.A Bayona (The Orphanage), to most of the film crew and armies of special effects and hair and make up people (unbelievably awesome job). But instead of, say, using megastars Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz and three Spanish boys to portray the family, speaking in Spanish with subtitles, or even in heavily accented English, the producers thought that they could gain a wider audience by making everybody blond and English. It's a waste of energy to decry the plague of unfair casting practices in commercial movies. It is unfortunate, but part of the reality of film today, which is that films need stars to get made and seen, and stars, for the most part, tend to be white. The irony here, not to detract from the soulful and generous work of Watts and McGregor, is that they are not bigger stars than Bardem and Cruz, who are a galaxy unto themselves. So this Anglo casting does not necessarily guarantee a wider audience. The plot is feeble. It follows the fate of Maria, the mother, played by Watts, and her oldest son, Lucas. It strands the dad and the other two kids offscreen for two thirds of the film. This is a huge missed opportunity to show more effects and to explain to the audience what happened to them without resorting to exposition. This is a rare instance where I wish that some Hollywood hand with a knack for disaster could come to the rescue, because even as there is a tsunami aftermath going on, not much really happens. The script does not seem to know or care about who is this English family living in Japan, what makes them tick. I bet had they remained Spanish, the filmmakers would have naturally understood who they were and the story would be much richer.
Bayona, bereft of a good plot, manufactures cheap, vapid emotional cliffhangers. He is adept at creating a sense of menace, as he showed in The Orphanage, a film that scared the living daylights out of me. In the first minutes of The Impossible, before the tsunami hits, he shows the tranquil ocean and the colorful little fishies swimming in it, and we get a tingle of dread, bracing for the unimaginable devastation that is soon to come. And he dares to imagine it, brilliantly. The way in which he portrays the feeling of getting swept and mangled by a giant wave is extraordinary. But any time the characters open their mouths, out come the most inane lines. The movie works best when no one speaks. And, not trusting that the audience's emotion flows naturally from following the family's terrible upheaval, he contrives scene after scene of unnecessary audience manipulation, without the grace or skill of a blockbuster master like Steven Spielberg. Overwrought orchestral music does not help. Too much repetition blunts the impact of sweeping crane shots of the devastation. Worse, towards the end of the movie, Bayona repeats the scenes of the tsunami. At the beginning, I marveled at the skill and restraint he showed on keeping them short for added realism and power. Seeing them once is enough for them to leave an indelible impression. Showing them twice is a huge miscalculation.
My theory is that the Spanish government financed this movie in the hopes of bringing some SFX industry to its shores, like Europe gives Woody Allen money each year to film tourist brochures of its most charming cities. If I were a Hollywood mogul, after seeing what the Spanish can do with special effects, I'd scream "get me Madrid! But there is a crass whiff of calculation in making everything (except the tsunami) as generic as possible, missing rich opportunities to explore how privileged tourists and poor locals were affected, came together, or were torn apart by their inequities. When the only villains in the movie are an American couple who won't part with their cellphone, it is gratuitous and idiotic. So much could have been mined. Instead, we are left with the musty poverty of "the power of the human spirit", as boring a cliché as any.

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