I was excited to see The Impossible but I was a bit skeptical about Hollywood adapting another real-life disaster story because they have a reputation for messing with the truth to make films more marketable. A classical example is when James Cameron added a clichéd romance to Titanic. A disaster that was already rich with compelling plot ideas and he has to add a completely fabricated one about Romeo and Juliet. I mean Jack and Rose. (God, even the names are unoriginal)
Thankfully The Impossible was a lot more accurate. It focused on the experiences of a real family who survived the tsunami that hit South East Asia on Boxing Day 2004. It's incredibly harrowing and sometimes distressing. Almost to the point of being unbearable. On more than one occasion I felt so overwhelmed I had to cover my eyes, because the graphic details of their suffering was too hard to watch. A simple black screen with the sound of whirling water when the wave hits makes the audience feel completely immersed, as if they are experiencing the tsunami themselves. These shots are a lot more effective than a big-budget computer animated wave - which we have seen many times before in films like The Perfect Storm and Poseidon.
Even though I found the tsunami sequences really powerful, I was astonished that this film had been classified as a 12A. There were quite a few young children at the screening I attended who were probably scarred for life and won't want to go to the beach any time soon. Interestingly, a website called Kids in Mind has been launched which gives parents advice about which films are actually suitable for children because the BBFC ratings have become so unreliable.
While The Impossible is a lot closer to the truth than Titanic, that doesn't mean Hollywood didn't find a way of sneaking in a few added clichés and this let the film down. The family – with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts playing the parents – were so perfect and clean-cut it detracted from the realism. They looked like a family of models. I wasn't sure if I was watching a disaster movie or a Thai holiday commercial gone horribly wrong. The performances were incredible but they would have benefited from hiring slightly more normal looking actors. Not to mention that the actual family was Hispanic not English. (Hey isn't that a bit racist?) And the story was dramatic enough without the addition of the excruciatingly familiar sequence in which Ewan McGregor's character is trying to find his oldest son in the hospital but keeps just missing him. These scenes were meant to be suspenseful but I just found them really aggravating and contrived.
Amputating the Truth
But by far the worst credibility problems came at the end. Up until this point, the film had felt very real and justifiably traumatic. But then it all became very soft focus towards the end, with the filmmakers compelled to create a more perfect happy ending than the real one. I became particularly suspicious in the closing sequences. I was curious to know whether the Naomi Watts character had lost a leg in surgery, but it was clear after a while that the filmmakers were deliberately avoiding shots from the waist down. A quick search on Wikipedia after viewing the film confirmed that Maria Belon Alvarez, the real-life survivor, had indeed lost half of her leg. I found it unbelievably tacky that after having shown us the family suffering in such detail in the early scenes, the filmmakers didn't trust the audience to cope with the fact that she'd had her leg amputated. I felt that the filmmakers had manipulated the ending so that it was true but still had an unrealistic outcome, suggesting that the family had escaped the tsunami without any long-term emotional or physical damage. Personally, I would still have found the story uplifting even knowing she had lost her leg because it really was a miracle that they all survived.
The plot chose to focus on the struggle of the mother Maria and the oldest son Lucas. I thought Naomi Watts's best actress nomination was well deserved and the performance of Tom Holland as her son was also brilliant, especially for someone of his age. I'm not sure if it was deliberate but to me Lucas felt like the main character. He had by far the biggest character arc and the most compelling story - basically having to assume the role of the parent as his mother becomes more and more dependent due to her injuries. With this in mind, I think it's a shame that the marketing for the film focused so heavily on Ewan McGregor who actually had a fairly small role in comparison.
All in all, I did really enjoy this film and I found it incredibly affecting. But in retrospect, I felt the film's realism was let down by the ending. The filmmakers had used the traumatic and graphic details of the actual disaster at the beginning to distract attention from what eventually became a fairly standard disaster movie formula.