Starring Naomi Watts, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, and Ewan McGregor
Directed by J. A. Bayona
After beginning his career with the fantastic ghost story tale The Orphanage, Juan Antonio Bayona has chosen to take on a true life story of a family caught in the deadly Thailand Tsunami of 2004. This was a film I walked into with very low expectations as it lacked any publicity, the family had been whitewashed in the scripting phase, and I had known that the story would take certain liberties with the facts, as is the case with any film that features the caption “based on a true story”. And although the finished product is emotionally manipulating and filled with moments that I know never happened, as a film and piece of entertainment I was completely on board and engaged. The Impossible in short, may just be the most devastating and realistic portrayal of a natural disaster ever brought to life on film.
At the onset we are introduced to the family in flight as they make their way to spend their Christmas vacation at a newly opened resort in Thailand: Henry (Ewan McGregor), Maria (Naomi Watts), Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pandergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin). Within 15 minutes of screen time, our protagonists have been perfectly introduced through Christmas festivities and a wonderful sequence involving the release of candled lanterns that although I feel was un-needed and done better in movies like The Beach, was welcomed none the less. A day or so later, the family is enjoying themselves by the pool when a thunderous roar sounds and the Tsunami hits.
I am a shameless fan of disaster porn and the work of the king himself, Roland Emmerich. No one knows how to destroy our world like Emmerich, but he needs to sit and take notice because Bayona has perfectly and masterfully captured the terrifying, lucid and sudden impact of a disaster like this, and unsurprisingly this is the unquestioned standout of the film. Everything that happens in The Impossible hinges on this moment of the film and it is nailed to absolute perfection. It’s thrilling, scary and you’re thrown into this moment with zero notice, much like the experience of the real life counterparts of the actors. There is no over-dramatizing in this sequence and I believe this is a new benchmark in disaster films. It is also the moment in the film where the focus shifts solely to Maria and the eldest son Lucas for a good chunk of the film.
Recognizing where the heart of the film rested, Bayona wisely chose to spend most of the aftermath in the presence of what are also the two best performances of the film as well. After barely escaping the onslaught of waves with their lives, Maria and Lucas are in a state of shock, ignoring the grisly injuries both suffered during the tsunami. Their first instinct is to get to higher ground and address their wounds, some of which could prove to be fatal. Along the way their humanity is questioned more than once, and after overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds with a bit of luck, the two find their way into the care of one of the local hospitals, which are now rampant and overcrowded with the injured and the dead. It’s here where the remainder of their involvement in the narrative will take place while we learn the fate of the rest of the family.
We then explore the aftermath of the tsunami through the perspective of Henry and the two younger sons, which isn’t as strong of a story, but is still efficient and effective. Henry’s main concern is to ensure the safety of his youngest, then continue to try and locate the remaining members of the family. The rest of the film is fairly straight-forward and doesn’t try to be anything else but a film about survival and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of great uncertainty.
Unlike many films in this genre, The Impossible triumphs in the smaller moments where others falter, and I believe that strength lies in the script. Sergio Sanchez has written a taught, lean and efficient script that is smart enough to choose its moments to halt the narrative and reflect on the situation through a handful of effective dramatic scenes that allow the actors to really shine amongst the thousands of extras. Sanchez also used a theme of circles and repetition in his story as a metaphor for the pain and guilt of the survivors that is likely still with the family today. The choice to make the family’s ethnicity American is certainly going to be scrutinized, but for a Spanish production, I suppose the only way a producer gets enough money to make a film of this scope is by taking such liberties.
Although most of the dramatic events surely didn’t happen this way, the moments feel genuine, and the actors really bring their A-game to create the tension, grief, and sadness required to suspend our disbelief in those smaller moments. As I said earlier, all the actors, from the leads to the extras, really stepped up to bat and knocked their performances out of the park. However, the real acting standout in The Impossible is the performance of Tom Holland as the eldest son Lucas. His portrayal is genuine, and at no moment does it feel melodramatic and forced. The majority of his scenes are separate from the lead actors and for the most part it feels like The Impossible is Holland’s film.
Due to its choices in portraying the event to a greater dramatic effect, this isn’t a film that will garner a lot of awards attention on the acting, writing, and directing side of things, but I feel there are many nominations coming for everything in the technical department from the sound and special effects to the editing and cinematography to the production design and score. The Impossible was a welcome surprise and an early favorite of the festival for me and by the sounds of things, most of the others in the audience, thanks to its scale, acting, and sense of realism. Fall season has just begun so it’s IMPOSSIBLE to tell if it touches my top ten of the year but I’m excited to find out.