The Impossible is an impressive and deeply troubling picture, both for intentional and unintentional reasons.
The latest natural disaster movie doesn’t bear much resemblance to the Irwin Allen spectacles from the 1970s or the effects-driven blockbusters from Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay during the 1990s. Instead, The Impossible is a more intimate true-life story of one family’s desperate fight for survival that remains focused on its characters and is more harrowing as a result.
The disaster in question is the December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that came ashore in Thailand. It certainly spoils an idyllic Christmas vacation for Henry (Ewan McGregor), Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three young boys who are staying at a posh resort along the coast.
The storm strikes suddenly and fiercely, threatening thousands of lives and tearing the family apart. They try to reunite amid the chaos over the next few days, hoping that everyone is alive. A major highlight is the riveting extended sequence of the tsunami and its aftermath near the beginning of the film, which conveys not only the level of danger to the characters but also the extent of the damage to the landscape. Some of the suffering feels authentic and is difficult to watch at times.
As a harrowing depiction of the 2004 tsunami that swept over much of Southeast Asia, it’s a top-drawer depiction of humans struggling to survive and help one another. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are brilliant as parents whose family is sundered by the massive tidal wave, each valiantly struggling to keep their sons alive while not knowing if the other is dead or not.
Kudos to Spanish director J.A. Baryona (The Orphanage), for skillfully navigating the transition from disaster to relief without sanitizing the recovery. It’s poignant to watch the way total strangers come together regardless of cultural background or socioeconomic status, showing that in desperate times; the simplest acts of kindness go a long way.
Oh wait, I forgot to tell you about the family in details, Maria is a doctor who’s not currently practicing, while Henry is an engineer for a Japanese company. Their base is Tokyo, but they’ve adopted a jet-setting lifestyle that has grown comfortable to them.
Certainly their three boys seem to be typical lads. Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), 5, and 7-year-old Thomas (Samuel Joslin) are scrappy and stubborn. The eldest, Lucas (a marvelous Tom Holland), is about 12 and in full-blown preteen rebellion mode.
But when Lucas and Maria are separated from the rest of the family and she is seriously injured, he’s forced to grow up fast. The transition that takes place in Lucas has been brilliantly portrayed and the acting of Tom Holland is so convincing that I can go on for few more pages, praising about his acting skills.
Anyway coming back to the story, as a doctor, Maria knows how badly she needs medical help, which only amplifies her plight. Watching the power balance shift, as son gradually becomes caretaker to mother, is the film’s high point.
Henry is a passive type, not your prototypical alpha-male movie hero. But his determination to see for his entire family reunited is a sight to behold. Even when the survivors from their hotel are being shipped to safer ground, he stays behind to continue the search.
The Impossible exists on only a single level of emotion and peril. The characters aren’t really defined other than by their reaction to a deadly challenge. But watching them rise to it is a compelling journey, as their incredible experience stands in for many others who did not make it to tell their tale.
Ratings: * * * (& Half) / 5