Emotionally raw and unnerving, The Impossible is a disaster movie that is actually a family drama at its core, which makes for a thrilling a beautiful movie
This month, director J.A. Bayona returns with a movie adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel A Monster Calls. So, I thought it would be a perfect time to go back and review his last movie, 2012’s The Impossible.
In 2005, one of the worst natural disasters in history hit the Indian Ocean in the form of a tsunami. More than 230,000 people lost their lives and nearly 2 million were displaced. So naturally we follow the story of a white family in the disaster. I wanted to get this fact out of the way because it must be said that despite the masses of Thai, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, and other Southeast Asians who were affected by the disaster, this film decided to filter it through the lens of a British tourist family. I’m going to revisit this later.
The Bennett family arrives in Khao Lak, Thailand for a Christmas holiday. Little do they know that their dream vacation is about to turn in a nightmare of epic proportions. The first thing that you notice about The Impossible is how impressive the cinematography is. Even simple scenes like the family landing in Thailand and their Christmas day celebration releasing lanterns into the sky are shot with a perfectly placed eye.
However, with most disaster movies the centerpiece tsunami scene is the real breakout. Unlike other disaster set pieces, the tsunami doesn’t focus on the epic scale of the disaster, but rather the physical and emotional struggles of our core family. But in reality, what I was really thinking during the sequence was “how the hell did they do that?” Remarkably realistic to the point that you cringe and gasp every time a piece of debris hits a character or when they’re thrashed and impaled as the fury of the water takes its toll on them. If there isn’t a modern argument for practice effects, this sequence is surely it. Bayona used nearly no CGI in the scene.
Naomi Watts as Maria Bennett shows her talents as an actor as she is the lens we view the actual disaster through. Her pain is our pain and her feelings as a mother and a scared human in a seemingly hopeless situation are our feelings.
And while Watts got the most praise for her performance, the true star here is Tom Holland as the son, Lucas (which bodes well for his turn as Spider-Man). At just 10-years-old at the time of filming, the range of emotions that he was able to convey was incredible for any actor. In the face of incredible odds his character has to deal with conflicting desires to be a strong authoritative figure and reverting to a lost adolescent.
Nevertheless, Ewan McGregor as the family’s patriarch and the two young performers Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast are equally fantastic in the film.
After the disaster, the movie diverts to a story about the aftermath and the new tale of survival the family is thrown into. However, more than that, the movie tells the story of both the chaos in the face of disaster and the power of the human spirit.
Yes, the movie took a lot of hits for focusing on a white tourist family in this disaster that affected so many Southeast Asian families. However, this decision does make it an easier entry for the Western audiences that are going to be watching this movie. Bayona wanted to filter the story through the eyes of people that we can relate to, and the Spanish family this is based on was the way in.
However, Bayona did take care to show the range of people affected and the range of people that went to the rescue. The first people to go searching for survivors were the natives and they get their due.
While the first two acts are raw, unnerving cinema at its best, the third becomes overly sentimental with a few eye-rolling moments. It feels like it’s a completely different movie from the beginning. There are one too many constructed heartfelt moments. However, it’s not enough to completely take the wind out of the sails of an otherwise engaging and impressive family drama.
In the end, The Impossible is a surprisingly entertaining and satisfying take on the human spirit in the face of, well, impossible odds. It tracks the unthinkable decisions that this family has to make to survive and the emotional toll it takes on them. Sometimes it’s sentimental to a fault, but the thrilling and innovative filmmaking that’s being done makes it all worth it.