I have seen many disaster films, but few ones were as devastating and hurtful as “The Impossible”. Inspired by a real-life story inside the most disastrous Tsunami incident in the human history, the movie reminded me of how little I knew about this huge catastrophe – and its chaotic aftermath which the characters in the movie painfully and desperately struggle through. Although its view on the disaster is notably biased, there are genuine emotions swelling in the movie through its rather subjective but intimate view, and that makes the movie a very powerful human drama we rarely encounter in its genre.
After its prologue subtitle, the movie instantly focuses on the Bennetts, an Australian family who has been living in Japan for years. They are about to have their Christmas vacation, and they are expecting to have a good time at their vacation place in Thailand. Henry(Ewan McGregor), a father of three boys, has some worry about his job in Japan, and the room they wanted is not reserved for them, but they come to spend a wonderful time with other guests on Christmas Eve – and we soon see them having a nice rest around the pool in the morning of that fateful day, December 26th, 2004.
The Indian Ocean Tsunami, which was previously shown in Clint Eastwood’s film “Hereafter”(2010) with striking effect during its beginning, is presented here with dramatic power to chill your nerve. Even before the people fully realize what is happening and run into safe places, everything is quickly engulfed and swept by the speedy and destructive wall of water, and this is a really terrifying moment to watch. When I saw the Tsunami indirectly on TV, it just looked like a wave merely advancing on the land, but, through the views of the characters in the movie, I got a gut-chilling feeling as watching the Tsunami ruthlessly sweeping everything in front of it; I would be as stunned as them if I were in their circumstance.
When the immediate danger is over, Henry’s wife Maria(Naomi Watts) luckily survives with her son Lucas(Tom Holland), but their ordeal is far from being over. Maria is badly injured, so it is Lucas’ job to support her while they are desperately looking for help. They fortunately arrive at the hospital, but the place has already become busy and chaotic with the increasing number of the injured. Lucas is nearly helpless in front of his mother’s suffering, but he does as much as he can do for helping her – and the others in the hospital.
Along with the Tsunami sequence, the part depicting their grueling ordeal is the best part of the film, and Naomi Watts, who was recently Oscar-nominated for this film, gives a strong physical performance which can reach to your nerve ends even when her character gradually becomes immobile on her bed due to her worsening health condition; every time Maria tries to move, we can feel how much hard and painful it is for her to do that, and Watts is devastating to watch as her character is weakened hour by hour.
As her confused son affected by the disaster as much as her, a young newcomer Tom Holland movingly holds the center during the second part of the story while delivering a performance which deserves to be mentioned along with Quvenzhané Wallis in “Beasts of the Southern Wild”(2012), Suraj Sharma in “Life of Pi(2012), and Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman in “Moonrise Kingdom”(2012). While feeling very awkward and burdened about becoming his mother’s only and equal partner during their quest for survival, this adolescent boy also sees a grave possibility of losing his mother and being left alone by himself, and his inner torment amid confusion is vividly conveyed to us through Holland’s harrowing performance.
Ewan McGregor, who is technically the lead actor in the credit, is also convincing as a normal family man during his scenes with other main performers, and his difficult search for his wife and eldest son is an effective dramatic parallel to the main plot. I heard that the family in the real-life story was actually Spanish(you can see their family photo before the end credit), but it is an understandable change considering that McGregor and Watts are more widely known actors who can draw more audiences. After all, the movie was made by the Spanish director and his Spanish crews, so I respect their choice.
Although the plot is pretty simple, the director Juan Antonio Bayona keeps holding our attraction through the real pains and desperation of his characters while establishing the bright but desolate atmosphere through the wide, bleak sights shown after the Tsunami. Even though I learned later that Watts and Holland were actually in a big water tank while they shot the Tsunami sequence, CGIs in the film look so believable that I could believe their characters were right in the middle of the ongoing disaster.
If there is a problem with the story, it is its biased view on the disaster itself. I noticed that, while tightly concentrating on its main characters’ physical and psychological pains, the movie does not focus much on the local people in Thailand, who were far more devastated in real life compared to the foreign visitors like the Bennett family(Around 230,000 people lost their lives in several South Asian nations at that time, and most of them were the local people). The Thai people in the movie are mostly depicted as the bystanders speaking a language incomprehensible to the main characters except few minor characters who can speak English, but at least they are shown in a positive view as the kind people willingly helping their injured visitors in spite of their own damages.
Despite its flaws, the emotional intensity in the movie is well accomplished by its one-sided but focused approach, and “The Impossible” succeeds in pulling strong emotions from its direct and earnest presentation of a story about ordinary people suddenly swept by a catastrophe beyond their imagination. Even though it gets a little too manipulative around the finale and you can clearly see that the movie is trying to pull strings behind the screen, it works thanks to the solid performances and straightforward storytelling. The movie does something different from many disaster dramas, and I think its undeniable results compensate a lot for its weak points.