A true account of one family’s story of survival during the tsunami that struck that Pacific Basin in the winter of 2004, “The Impossible” is both gut wrenching and poignant. While many natural disaster/survival movies often personify disasters as their own purveyors of misfortune, “The Impossible” does no such thing. Instead, it is a very human movie, a film that portrays everything from the point of view of its victims, its camera lingering uncomfortably. And when you think the camera will pull back, will have mercy, it instead continues to linger.
The film follows a tourist family, a couple and their three young sons who would survive the tsunami. The couple, played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor couldn’t be further from films like “The Ring” and “Star Wars” that pushed along their careers. In this film they are hapless victims of a circumstance beyond their control. Their three sons, Lucas, Thomas, and Simon are swept up in it with them. The film is really broken up into three parts: the first, as Maria (Watts) and young Lucas (Tom Holland) fight for their lives, the second, as Lucas and his mother ride out the chaos of a makeshift hospital, and the third as husband Henry (McGregor) and his other two sons embark on a desperate quest to find their missing family.
Seeing as the family’s tale of survival is chronicled well in a simple Google search, this is not a spoiler, but helps to prepare you for what awaits these parties during the movie’s run.
The strength of “The Impossible” is that director J.A. Bayona doesn’t rest its success upon special effects or overbearing drama. We’ve all seen that tsunami movie where a wall of water dozens of feet high comes crashing into high structures (such as the Statue of Liberty in Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow”), but we all know that isn’t what really happens. In “The Impossible” a quiet day by the pool is transformed into a nightmare with waves that just reach over the roofs of a modest bungalow. It’s the force, of course (able to snap palm trees in a single strike), and the duration with which the ocean is washed over the Thailand landscape that makes the events horrific.
We don’t see that tsunami from the ocean’s point of view, heading in, either. A simple breeze, more strong than normal, and a steady rumbling precede it. The only time we see the wave is when it smashes into a hotel filled with guests, as they stand dumbfounded with nowhere to run. It’s much more effective and frightening, and both Bayona and Cinematographer Oscar Faura highlight the material with the respect and ferocity it deserves.
“The Impossible,” smartly, doesn’t decide to make its entire story about crashing waves, but about survival, and an often hopeless search to find loved ones. The proceedings are doubtless more authentic given that part of the film’s writing credits are given to María Belón, whom Watts portrays, for giving her story. In the film she’s a physician who is taking time off to raise the boys. But it’s her eldest, Lucas, who ends up taking care of her for a large portion the film. Maria sustains a few devastating wounds during the course of the film, and the movie doesn’t shy away from making us, as well as Lucas, horrified to lay eyes on them.
Naomi Watts was nominated for an Oscar for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Lead Role,” and, with her acting here, is well deserved. I feel that the film’s accolades dropped the ball, however, by not giving Holland the recognition he deserves; to me, he’s the real star of the film, one who outshines A-listers like Watts and McGregor throughout. A brash youngster who teases his brother at the film’s onset for being frightened, he transforms throughout the movie, and much of the horror of the film happens because of his reactions. He goes from a child wanting only to save he and his mother immediately following the events of the tsunami, to a man helping strangers he doesn’t even know find their loved ones. In the film’s best sequence, Holland glows as a father and son are reunited. All hope is not lost, and its through this act he wonders for the first time if his family could also be alive.
All in all, “The Impossible” is a powerful and moving film, though some proceedings towards the film’s end drag on somewhat and add purposeful drama that didn’t really need to be there. But it’s all forgivable. With excellent acting, mournful material, and hope sandwiched between tragedy, “The Impossible” is a strong motion picture that adequately highlights a disaster and what people will do to survive it.
– by Mark Ziobro