The Impossible is based on the true story of the Belón family’s terrifying experience during the 2004 tsunami. The gruesome and suffocating visuals are powerful, but often the film feels oddly sterile given its content.
While vacationing in Thailand for Christmas, Henry Belón (Ewan McGregor), wife Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three sons are swept away from their oceanfront resort in the massive tsunami that devastated the coastline of Southern Asia.
Initially writer Sergio G. Sánchez and director Juan Antonio Bayona keep the viewer with Maria and the oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland). The moments of struggle that come after the wave crashes onto shore seem never-ending and more than once I found myself holding my breath as Maria and Lucas were repeatedly forced back under water.
Once the tsunami subsides and the focus trains on the struggle to find medical care and reunite the family, the film begins to lose some of its power. I never felt in doubt that the family would be reunited and returned home. Even though this was based on a true story, the tension and suspense should still feel real. Instead each of the misdirects or difficulties that came in the second and third acts seemed like hoops setup for characters to jump through.
Then there is the bizarre choice to change the nationality of the main characters. In reality the Belóns were Spanish. Though the director and writer are both Spanish, the choice was made to cast five Brits as the family.
Perhaps this alone would not be a big deal, but throughout the film there is not one significant character that is Thai. All of the Asians in the film are dead, inept, helpful yet terrifying, or oppositional forces. Each is little more than a necessary piece to get the main British characters to their next destination.
I’m not making the claim that The Impossible is a racist film. I think the story is compelling, and I think that Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland all give fine performances, but there seems to be a choice to actively sanitize the racial profile of the film in order to sell it to a white Western audience. Perhaps they just wanted to avoid subtitles.
It might not be malicious, or racist, but it is noticeable and left me feeling very weird about this film that has a pretty incredible story at its heart.