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It was exactly eight years ago to the day of this writing that a tsunami wreaked havoc along the world’s Pacific Rim, punishing no fewer than 14 countries and causing the loss of nearly 300,000 lives. That is an unfathomable number. It’s nearly impossible to imagine that sort of instantaneously massive devastation.
So The Impossible, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, from a script written by Sergio G. Sánchez, goes in the opposite direction, focusing on one family’s struggle for survival amid the chaos. The result is an honorable film that’s both harrowing and manipulative.
The family at the center of The Impossible is the Bennetts, a British family including erstwhile doctor Maria (Naomi Watts), businessman Henry (Ewan McGregor), teenage son Lucas (Tom Holland), and younger sons Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin). Currently living in Japan for Thomas’ job, the quintet is vacationing at the exotic Thai resort of in Khao Lak when the storm hit the day after Christmas (they are based on the real-life family of five who survived the ordeal and often make public appearances to discuss it).
That we know the outcome for these characters does not make Impossible any easier of a viewing experience. Bayona’s film wastes no time in diving right into the wreckage. The family is separated, and Bayona concentrates most of Impossible’s first half on Maria’s struggle to survive the flood. Espying Lucas, the two try to reach each other and avoid injury. As the severity of Maria’s injuries become clear, Lucas is forced to take charge and care for his mother and a young child they find who has been separated from his parents.
Cinematographer Óscar Faura’s camerawork and Elena Ruiz’s editing during these initial scenes of destruction and displacement carefully conjure the overpowering fear that must have hit all of these victims, and Marc Bech’s sound design further fills in the you-are-there detail that gives Impossible its visceral punch.
But Bayona’s cast is actually its greatest visual effect. Watts is a marvel at summoning Maria’s strength, but the greatest attribute of her work here is her ability to show both internal and external pain. The unspoken ways in which she immediately enters protective-mother mode and recognizes the fact that she may have just lost half of her family is remarkable.
McGregor appears in the second half of the movie, which focuses on Henry’s search to reunite his family, and it is to his credit that his scenes manage to earn tears instead of jerk them. (One particular telephone scene stands out.) Ploy Jindachote and Sönke Möhring are also quite effective in small roles as those who reach out to members of the Bennett family in the tsunami’s aftermath. Holland, though, deserves special mention as the spine of Impossible. This outstanding young actor carries the movie, blending fear, anger, exhaustion and optimism in a peerless performance completely lacking in self-awareness. It’s a peerless performance that should be remembered.
Impossible is the second directorial outing for Bayona following 2007’s thriller The Orphanage, and his experience both hurts and helps the film in equal measure. He knows better than to blink. Impossible plunges the viewer straight into scary territory. It is also certainly a boon to have someone with his horror makeup experience onboard; makeup artist’s Tamar Aviv’s rendering of injuries add a scarily realistic sense of verisimilitude. But Impossible remains a disaster film, and the director also clings to genre tropes, including Fernando Velázquez’s gratuitous telltale score and some flourishes that feel more at home in a horror movie. The nature of the tsunami is terror enough, and needs no further embellishing.
Also, one wonders if, in commemorating the story of those who weathered this storm, is concentrating on one white family who all survived an appropriate choice? While both locals and tourists who lost loved ones line the periphery of Bayona’s action, none of these become part of the face of the storm. The ways in which the local population was ravaged go unexplored; the hundreds of thousands of people who lost loved ones and who never found the medical care like Maria did go unmentioned. Impossible is an inspiring story – and an outstandingly portrayed one – but remains an incomplete look at an unforgettable chapter in recent history.