Impossible, The (Spain, 2012)

December 12, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Impossible, The Poster

The Impossible is a disaster movie. Not a Dean Devlin/Roland Emmerich/Michael Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer disaster movie, but a disaster movie nonetheless. Set against the backdrop of the 2004 tsunami that devastated large portions of coastal southern Asia, The Impossible relates the ordeal of a family of Spanish survivors (changed in the movie to British tourists to increase the international appeal) as they struggle to be reunited in the catastrophe's aftermath.

The Impossible's overall narrative structure is straightforward and will be familiar to those with an appreciation of higher-budget, lower-brain cell endeavors. The setup, in which we're introduced to the principal characters - father Henry (Ewan McGregor), mother Maria (Naomi Watts), and children Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), and Thomas (Samuel Joslin), takes about 20 minutes. When the tsunami hits on the day after Christmas, the event is represented without a surfeit of special effects. As the wall of water slams into the resort where family is staying, they are split into two groups. Maria and Lucas struggle through the floodwaters and mud to reach help, with Maria enduring several serious injuries (punctures to her right leg and chest) that force her to become reliant on her son. Meanwhile, Henry, Simon, and Thomas remain at the ruins of the resort until rescue workers arrive to take them out. Henry sends his children to a shelter while he remains behind to look for Maria and Lucas.

Although the backbone of the story is true, director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez take a few liberties. In particular, the climactic scene, which transpires in a shelter/hospital, overuses coincidence. At this point, Lucas has not yet been reunited with Henry but, unbeknownst to one another, they are at the same location. So the camera focuses on them just missing each other in the crowds. The intent is to generate suspense and tension; the effect is more likely to build a mild sense of irritation.

The tsunami sequences are harrowing, proving that massive injections of CGI are not always necessary to make a disaster seem real and immediate. The instances when Maria receives her injuries (shown underwater with jets of crimson piercing the murk) have a strong visceral impact. The raging torrent of water that nearly flushes Lucas and Maria apart gives a good sense of the power of the tsunami even after it has swept inland.

The Impossible's strength is its conveyance of the loneliness and chaos that settles in the disaster's aftermath. With communication poor at best, finding a loved one is a daunting task. To this day, many bodies, buried deep in mud or carried out to sea, have never been recovered. For a child, alone, lost, and looking for a parent, the effort is herculean. The circumstances faced by Lucas, Simon, and Thomas aren't as dire as they are for other children who are fully cast adrift, but we get a flavor of the fear, helplessness, and despair that sets in.

The film's adult leads, Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, give powerful, natural performances. Watts is viewed as a possible Oscar nominee and, while her work is deserving, McGregor's is equally memorable. It could also be argued that both well-known performers are outacted by Tom Holland, who is making his feature debut. Large portions of The Impossible are presented through Lucas' eyes (especially when his mother is incapacitated) and Holland brings home all the complex emotions of the situation.

As disaster movies go, this one is likely to attract a different crowd than what one might encounter at a more escapist production. It is, after all, a serious effort that focuses more on character interaction and mood than on action and big budget scenes of destruction. An added level of gravitas is added as a result of the factual basis of the narrative, which sticks closely to the accounts provided by the family upon whose tale this is based. The ending of The Impossible offers sufficient uplift to prevent viewers from leaving the theater in a funk, but to call it "happy" would be an unfair characterization. More than 200,000 lost their lives as a result of the earthquake and tsunami and The Impossible never forgets this. It is, above all, respectful of the enormity of the tragedy.

Impossible, The (Spain, 2012)

Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Oaklee Pendergast, Samuel Joslin
Screenplay: Sergio G. Sanchez
Cinematography: Oscar Faura
Music: Fernando Velazquez
U.S. Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2012-12-21
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1