Oscar bait films are the worst kind of films. They always feature some kind of uplifting tale, something that explores the depths of human morality or decency and they always attempt to make you cry. There’s usually always a bonafide (or semi-bonafide) leading actor or actress in the starring role and one who most likely has an Oscar nomination in the past or some cache in that department. These films scrap the bottom of the barrel trying to seem like an actually good film on the outset, where in actuality it’s just a cover for a film that tackles easy topics and well worn themes that are bound to effect a good amount of the viewing audience.
The Impossible checks a lot of these boxes and under different hands could fall into this trap, but it is faithfully made and produced that it eschews these typical fault lines that these types of movies can fall into, and creates a genuinely rich film experience. There’s not much to the plot, a vacationing family gets separated by the destruction of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and vows against all elements to be reunited again. It’s a simple set piece and one which gets out of the way quickly as emotions and character perseverance carry the bulk of the film. Because of this the film may seem a bit repetitive at times, going over roughly the same course of actions, trying to find new ways to express the same angst, pursuit and fear these characters have. When having no deeper or compounding plot, there’s only so much that can be done without things seeming like they’re just spinning their wheels until the family is hopefully reunited. Luckily, the strength of acting and stellar directing hold it above water and allows the film to rarely feel like it’s retreading too much that it takes you out of the film.
The success of a film like this is largely due to the strength of the actors, and their ability to not only faithfully reenact these disaster scenes so it feels “real,” but also to become invested in them, as without an emotional connection to these people or events, the film would be doomed to failure. Living up to their “Awards” level pedigree, Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are quite perfectly cast and really feel like a married couple. Watts particularly has to be good, especially as her character is incapacitated for much of the film due to a leg injury and does wonders when it’s just her and her oldest son. McGregor carries a heavier load in terms of dealing with his emotions and determination having to send his younger kids away to safety while he scours the area in search of his wife. McGregor’s strongest scene comes when he gets hold of a cell phone and calls his in-laws and a mix of frustration, hope and sadness overwhelms him as he bursts into tears and hastily hangs up on them. After encouragement from others around him he’s able to regroup and get that needed push his broken soul desires to find the remaining members of his family.
As well as the strength of acting, the film is helped out by how well it is directed and just the overall presentation of the film. The tsunami flood scenes are expertly staged and again help place you in this moment in how destructive and unforgiving the storm was. The chaos and helplessness of the area and people echo throughout the whole film, and even showcase a nice trajectory of things slowly getting better and filling out with more people by the film’s end. The film starts off bleak and slowly starts to get brighter, albeit dipping down throughout for obvious stunts of hardship, but slowly and surely, things are moving on an upward trajectory, whether they seem like it at the time or not. My only real problem with the choice of directing was the inclusion of a weird dream-like re-birth scene that felt tremendously out of place and seemed like it was from an entirely different movie, rather than a quite grounded one like this.
The Impossible was never going to be an all-time classic or compete for best picture awards. It does quite a lot well, the directing is good if not fantastic, and the acting is uniformly great all around. A well-roundedness is missing from the film as a whole where it does several things right, but at the expense of important areas such as character development and story structure. It rides high on emotions, which if done right like here can be completely fine and palatable, but lacks the cohesion of greater filmic means that could’ve pulled the film together better and made it richer beyond its emotional beats.