A film review by Craig J. Koban January 30, 2013


2012, PG-13, 103 mins.

Henry: Ewan McGregor / Maria: Naomi Watts / Lucas: Tom Holland / Simon: Oaklee Pendergast / Old woman: Geraldine Chaplin

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona / Written by Sergio G. Sanchez

If you excuse its too-on-the-nose title, THE IMPOSSIBLE is an unflinchingly harrowing, heart-rending, and tour de force recreation of one of the most devastating natural disasters in all of human history.  We all remember the day in question: On December 26, 2004 an undersea earthquake – the third largest ever recorded by a seismograph – struck in the Indian Ocean, with the epicenter being off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia.  Coastal communities were ravaged by 100-foot tall tidal waves and, all in all, the tsunami killed well over 200,000 souls in 14 countries.  I’m not sure how any one film could ever possibly capture the scale and human loss of this calamitous day. 

Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (THE ORPHANAGE) realizes that encapsulating the massive scope of the tsunami’s overwhelming destructive powers would prove to be impossible, so he and his screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez have instead opted to focus squarely on the struggles of one real life family and their own hellish ordeal when faced with separation, mortal injuries, and the prospects of never seeing each other alive again in the aftermath of the tsunami.   The family in question are in fact Spanish, but they have been changed to Brits for reasons I'm not altogether certain of, which consequentially proves to be distracting considering that the director of the film is Spanish.  Regardless of the oddly derived ethnicity of the main characters here, THE IMPOSSIBLE still does a bravura job of immersing viewers in the stark immediacy of their incalculably grueling and nightmarish situation.  

There is not much of an overall first, second, or third act to the film, nor is there much in the way of expository introductory moments to the family that is a focal point here.  We are quickly introduced to the family members – the father, Henry (Ewan McGregor), the mother, Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three kids, Lucas (Tom Holland), and the younger Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin).  They arrive on vacation at the tropical resort of Khao Lak, Thailand a few days before December 26.  The next day they celebrate Christmas and enjoy the sunny luxuries of their stay.  Then the tsunami hits and utterly decimates the coast, and the entire family – as well as countless other families and resort dwellers – are literally swept up and away from one another by the building sized waves.  The resort is left in a state of near post-apocalyptic dilapidation. 



The family finds themselves hopelessly split up and trying to make the best of their horrendous predicament.  Maria is with Thomas, the oldest child, but she has suffered potentially life-threatening injuries and needs hospital care.  Thomas, using his wits, determination, and inner resolve, now finds himself caring over his mother’s every need.  In the meantime, Henry and the two other younger sons are still in what’s left of the resort and await any type of relief or rescue workers to show up.  They have no outside communication with the world – power is down and Henry’s cell phone is dead – so Henry takes it upon himself to send his children to a nearby shelter while he engages in a tireless search for his wife and eldest son, even though, deep down, he fears the worst. 

There have been countless fictional disaster films over the years, which seem to focus on visual effects first and the human misery a far distant second.  THE IMPOSSIBLE is on a whole other level in the manner that its scenes recreating the natural disaster ring with more haunting and shocking authenticity than just about any other similar film that I’ve seen.  Bayona created the near ten-minute reconstruction of the Boxing Day tsunami using a mixture of digital effects, models, and real water surges, which I think lends so much astonishing believability to the sequenceWhat emerges is a scene that feels eerily like something out of a documentary, as Bayona thrusts the audience into the dreadful and futile sensation of having nowhere to run or hide when faced with a massive onslaught of water and building debris coming directly at you.  What’s truly extraordinary here is how the groundbreaking visual effects work never becomes an obtrusive or obvious element that draws needless attention to its technique: it’s one of the most sensationally realized and nerve-jarring sequences of the movies. 

Thankfully, Bayona has pitch-perfect performances that pack a hefty emotional wallop and intensity to compliment the superlative technological achievement of his tsunami recreation.  McGregor has always been a refined talent that seems to be able to latch himself on to just about any role with relative ease, but here he has to relay the monumental sensation of helplessness and misery in his father figure without looking like he’s engaging in Oscar-nomination baiting.  He has a scene on a cell phone – provided by one selfless tourist who wants to help him – that’s arguably one of the most agonizing and heart-breaking phone conversations I’ve seen in a while.  Imagine that you have to relay so much information to loved ones back home when only given mere seconds in fear of the phone battery going dead at any moment. 

Two other performances are the finest, though, the first belonging to the indomitable presence of the great Naomi Watts, who has to evoke both a woman of limitless bravery and downtrodden vulnerability and despair at the same time.  Even when Maria is faced with overwhelming odds and tortuous injuries, her paternal instincts still kick in to keep her child save.  Watts spends much of her time nearly comatose on makeshift hospital gurneys throughout the film, but she nonetheless conveys – with so very little dialogue – all of Maria’s resolve to stay alive in hopes of seeing her entire family again.  Tom Holland is the other key to Watt’s tour de force work, as he has to credibly perform off of Watts while, at the same time, traversing the film’s largest character transformation, encapsulating Thomas going from a smart-assed and hot-tempered pre-teen to one that has to become a brave and intrepid figure of nurturing steadfastness to all of his mother’s needs.  There is not one false move or emotional note in Holland’s exquisitely rendered and touching performance here. 

THE IMPOSSIBLE grasps for masterful status through and through; it’s undeniably an epically staged disaster film that’s a stellar achievement in the annals of visual effects, not to mention that it’s also a gut-wrenching and deeply moving portrayal of human survival and family love (it'll be a three-hanky film for most that endure it).  Yet, the film perhaps misses an opportunity to develop some of the individual family members as characters in the opening sections of the film – the tsunami comes relatively quick in the narrative and we, quite frankly, don’t learn much about these people before tragedy strikes.  The film’s ultimate conclusion – which strives to be an uplifting and relatively feel-good ending – is both oddly satisfying and somewhat off-putting, perhaps in the way that it kind of overlooks the whole grievous loss of human life left in the tsunami’s wake outside of the family’s insular story (a quarter of a million other lives lost does not make for a happy ending).   However, THE IMPOSSIBLE does not in any way disrespect the human tragedy of December 26, 2004.  To its credit - and unlike most other cinematic tales of disaster, fictional or real – this one packs a frightening emotional veracity that few others can muster.

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