"The Impossible" Earns High Marks Across The Board

“The Impossible” is an incredible feat of filmmaking, one that 700 words simply can’t explicate. It’s more of an experience than it is a movie, but the straightforward narrative doesn’t detract from this unusual coalescence of big-budget special effects and surprisingly gentle storytelling. If this isn’t the most elegant disaster movie ever made, it certainly doesn’t have much competition. Inspired by a Spanish family of five that went through the hell that was the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, the picture begins as a steady radio dial, suddenly and violently spun into fits of static and garbled chaos. This swift wrath of nature is expertly realized, but the heart of the film is in its characters and how they respond to the betrayal of the world around them. Director Juan Antonio Bayona conducts this symphony with a steady hand and a wonderful visual eye.

Britons Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor) are vacationing in Thailand with their three young sons. We see them on their flight from Japan (where Henry’s job has taken the family) and their rapport is just like any other family. They worry about mundane happenings back home and mostly take each other for granted, particularly their oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), who’s entirely detached from his younger brothers, Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). Upon arriving at their Thai resort, the family celebrates Christmas and begins to enjoy their vacation. The way Bayona frames the ocean in these early scenes is appropriately eerie – as menacingly as any body of water since “Jaws.”

A mere fifteen minutes into the film, a poolside blender cuts out. A slight breeze catches Maria’s hair, quickly turning into a whipping gust of wind. No warning. It’s one thing to hear stories of tsunamis and the spontaneity with which they appear, but it’s another thing to see it happen in front of you. No warning. The ground rumbles, vacationers scatter and scream, their world about to be turned upside down, forever. From complete relaxation to impending death. No warning.

The scenes in which Maria and Lucas shoot through currents of debris-infested water are harrowing and violent, and when the two finally reach other, they’re exhausted, bloodied, and unsure of the fate of Henry and the two boys. Despite the picture’s PG-13 rating, its intensity can’t be understated. By avoiding most disaster movie clichés, Bayona has made his film all the more brutal, its impact never blunted and its characters never finding an easy way out. The level of physicality required by the cast is stunning, and they’re all up to the challenge, Watts in particular. And while it’s hard to tell how much of the specifics are rooted in reality, just to know that so many people went through this is hard to stomach.

The decision to tell the story from the point of view of vacationers rather than natives has caused some controversy, but it’s a moot point. Every native Thailander in the film is portrayed as helpful and gracious, and ultimately it doesn’t matter where the leads are from. It’s a story of people at their best, no matter their race or nationality. Heroes die, heroes are born, and getting caught up in anything but the human spirit is missing the point. Lucas’ arc from self-concern to complete selflessness is a microcosm of the entire picture, and the fact that he’s British (or that the real-life Lucas was Spanish) is irrelevant.

Just when the narrative begins to wander at the halfway mark, we’re thrown a curveball and the pace picks up immediately. The structure isn’t faultless and some of the twists and turns are overly convenient, but since we’re treated to some truly radiant cinematography and some of the best child acting in years, the narrative potholes are easy to overlook. The tsunami scenes themselves – of the “how did they do that?” variety – are overwhelming. The sum of the picture’s parts are great, but the whole of “The Impossible” is even better. If summer spectacle with unmatched production values, the ambition of great indie cinema, and lots of heart sounds appealing to you, “The Impossible” is not to be missed.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 21, 2012 (Limited)
Studio: Summit Entertainment
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Screenwriter: Sergio G. Sanchez
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Geraldine Chaplin
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity)