By SEAN DALY
Times Staff Writer
There is a solemn docudrama preface to The Impossible — a Hollywood take on the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that swept away 230,000 lives — a thudding reminder that what we are about to see is a TRUE STORY. And yet, never does this overwritten, tonally uneven Oscar wannabe ever feel like the real story, or even a respectful fraction thereof.
Instead, by focusing on a gorgeous European family vacationing at an ill-fated Thailand resort — an incredibly lucky brood of five led by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts — it attempts to attach manipulative cineplex uplift and thrills onto one of history's deadliest natural disasters. It awkwardly longs to be the Poseidon Adventure and Beasts of the Southern Wild all at once.
The filmmakers don't mean to be crass, and every now and then they pan wide to show, in harsh unflinching detail, the multicultural chaos and colorblind horror of what the churning sea wrought on Southeast Asia. But director J.A. Bayona ultimately doesn't want to make a small film, or even a depressingly honest one, which is what the true body count better deserved.
Instead, he wants it all — oohs and ahhs, tears and cheers — starting with the titanic waves that arrive the day after Christmas and demolish a beachside resort where our mom, dad and three boys are splashing unaware in the pool. It feels wrong admiring the aquatic armageddon we see onscreen, but the special effects team dazzles with relentless authenticity.
Indeed, for a 30-minute span, The Impossible is riveting, as we watch Watts' Marie and her son, Lucas, (16-year-old Tom Holland) try to stay alive amid the water and the mud and the sheer bleak awfulness of it all. With the rest of his family nowhere to be found, Lucas must grow up fast, as his mother, in the film's most gruesome scene, is fileted by tree branches, then spends great gory swaths of the movie vomiting blood in a wasp-infested hospital. (And how is this PG-13?)
One of the base problems with The Impossible — and part of the reason it often plays false — is that Bayona summons the calamity so soon, he has little time to introduce his family. So lead characters are quickly bestowed with one-note threads that are eventually tied up with swelling strings. Lucas craves a Coke at the start — then eventually, in odd means, gets a Coke. Another kid just wants to see the stars — and then, seemingly abandoned at film's end, gets to gaze at them.
But the most egregious echo? People keep randomly repeating the line "Close your eyes and think of something nice" — even an Asian surgeon at the movie's climax. This blatant grab for audience sobs is reminiscent of the eye-rolling tendencies of Mssrs. Spielberg and Cameron, who also know something about sprucing up historical tragedies for the rabid popcorn masses.
It's a mess, but not a total one. McGregor and Watts scream and cough and bleed a lot, but give them credit for meeting the physical demands of the story. And the most enlightening performance is put in by Holland, who plays Lucas as a stunned, but efficient, young hero. He saves loved ones and, to some degree, this movie, especially when his subtle response to a rare moment of good news amid the horror is not a smile or a laugh but confusion and jealousy. This, he reasons, is not a time to celebrate.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at @seandalypoplife on Twitter.