Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona.
Written by: Sergio G. Sánchez.
Starring: Ewan McGregor (Henry), Naomi Watts (Maria), Tom Holland (Lucas), Geraldine Chaplin (Old Woman), Oaklee Pendergast (Simon), Samuel Joslin (Thomas), Johan Sundberg (Daniel), Christopher Alan Byrd (Dieter).
One of the strange things about movies about events where thousands or millions of people die – whether it be the Holocaust or some sort of natural disaster – is that the movie are almost always about the few lucky people who survive. I understand this urge – after all even in the darkest events in human history, audiences want some sort of hope to shine through. This is why we get so many films about the brave people, and the brave Jews, who hid from the Nazis and somehow survived the Holocaust. And it’s why we get a film like The Impossible – which is about the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 26, 2004 – a natural disaster that killed 230,000 people – and is about the unbelievable but true story of a family who somehow survived. I understand the urge to find a positive story out of a negative one, it just seems odd to me.
The Impossible is about a British family living in Japan, who goes on a Christmas vacation in Thailand. After a few brief establishing scenes – where everything seems idyllic and perfect – the family thrust into a nightmare. While playing at the pool one morning, the tsunami hits out of nowhere – they hear a rumbling, they see trees topple, and then the huge waves crash down upon them. When the initial wave is over, we follow the mother, Maria (Naomi Watts) and the oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland), as they find each other amongst the currents, and fight to keep their heads above water, and struggle to get help. It will be a while before we find out about the father Henry (Ewan McGregor) and the two younger sons.
The scenes of the tsunami are devastating, almost unbearably intense, violent, chaotic and bloody. Brilliant aided by CGI and excellent sound work, these scenes are the best in the movie as we are thrust into the midst of all the chaos. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona – whose breakthrough film was the stylish Spanish horror film The Orphanage, loved by many but not by me – this movie, at its best, is an impeccably crafted tale of survival against all odds. Aided by a gutsy performance by Watts, whose performance is mostly visceral, intense and physical and young Tom Holland, who carries most of the weight of the movie on his young shoulders, the first half of the movie is where the film is at its best.
The second half of the film (and here I guess I should provide a Spoiler Warning even though I don’t plan on getting too specific) is also quite effective, but in a much different way. The visceral energy of the first half of the film is put on the backburner, and the movie becomes more inspirational – a film that wants to wring tears out of its audience. And that it does – at least it did for me (but I find that since becoming a father last year, I much more vulnerable to tears while watching a movie). This second half, while effective while the movie is running, left me feeling bad after the movie ended – bad because I think the filmmakers laid everything on too thick here, tries too hard to get you to cry. I don’t mind when a movie earns the tears it produces, but I do get a little angry when I feel a movie is just bald face manipulative of me. And while I think The Impossible is a fine film – even in the second half – I also have to say that I think this movie crosses that line a little bit.
But having said that, I have to say The Impossible is still a highly effective film – very well-acted by everyone and well-directed by Bayona, who does some very nice work in the later scenes, choreographing some complex sequences that reminded me of Spielberg. The Impossible is a good film – to some, who don’t mind being this manipulated by a film, it will be a great film. I just wish the film hadn’t quite stacked the deck so much, because had it played things a little straighter, it could have been a better film.