Director: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joshlin, Oakley Pendercast
Running Time: 113 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
If you could concoct the perfect formula for a harrowing survival film, the results still probably wouldn't come close to matching what you see in The Impossible, which is based on one family's true story of fighting to survive the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. That I use the word "formula" to describe what's actually a dramatization of real events may seem odd, but it's also entirely accurate. It's both the film's biggest strength and weakness because as we're sucked into the human emotion of the story and its unrelenting depiction of a natural disaster, it's hard not to think our strings are being pulled just a little bit. As a result, it at times feels most like an ultimately uplifting disaster movie elevated by a pair of great performances and a frighteningly realistic depiction of a true event. And while adapting from real-life is often tricky, it's especially challenging in this case since knowing how it all turns out does strip the film of a certain degree of suspense. So Spanish director J.A. Bayona piles on the emotion. And it works. Still, I can't help but think the three things everyone will be talking about when it's over are the tsunami scene itself, the graphic injuries and two jaw-dropping performances, one of which was rightfully nominated. But that turns out to be enough.
Other than a brief argument on the plane about whether the alarm at home was left on at home, not much time is spent getting to know English physician Maria Bennett (Naomi Watts), her husband, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their sons, 12 year-old Lucas (Tom Holland), 7 year-old Tomas (Samuel Joslin) and 5 year-old Simon (Oakley Pendergast). But we know enough. They're a seemingly normal, well adjusted family spending their 2004 Christmas vacation in Khao Lak, Thailand. That it could be anyone is exactly the point, and exactly the truth. Maria and Lucas are swept away and separated from the others when the tsunami hits, first struggling to make it to higher ground before searching for medical assistance for a severely injured Maria. Still back at what's left of the hotel, Henry and the little boys must stick together, until he decides to search for his missing wife and son. With Maria fighting for her life and Lucas quickly losing hope, the prospect of a family reunion gets bleaker with each passing day.
The most engaging section of the film is surprisingly not the first forty minutes to an hour when the tsunami hits, but everything that follows it, where we get to see the aftermath of the devastation and everyone scrambling to survive and locate their loved ones. Aside from the unforgettable opening of Clint Eastwood's 2010 film Hereafter, there's never really been a cinematic dramatization chronicling the true events surrounding the Indian Ocean Tsunami, so what we see is revelatory, especially in terms of the type of medical care available and how the locals handle such a crisis. There's a shot of the landscape, or what's left of it, after the storm that's absolutely surreal, calling to mind the wreckage and casualties attached to more recent disasters like Hurricane Sandy. This is that, but times ten.
The biggest surprise is how anyone survives something like this, but Watts is heartbreakingly believable in showing us it's possible in what more closely resembles a physically and emotionally exhausting ordeal than an actual acting performance. Maria has just about one of the most gruesome, graphic injuries you can have while remaining alive, and while I never doubted the character would make it, Bayona has to be commended for not shying away from the gore and showing us everything, as difficult as it is to sometimes watch. That the character's a doctor herself has much less relevance than you'd imagine, as all the victims seem to be at the mercy of little else but circumstance. And the circumstances are dire. The best scenes occur in the makeshift medical facility where survivors try to locate family members amidst the chaos and a frantic, but strong-willed Lucas attempts to help. As good as powerful as Watts is, young Tom Holland is essentially the beating heart of the movie, holding the majority of screen time while Maria is confined to a hospital bed.
That the story isn't as strong or emotionally involving when shifting focus to the dad and the rest of the boys isn't so much a fault as it is a natural progression of events. As the panicked father and husband, McGregor's solid (great even), but his scenes just don't have the visceral pull of Maria and Lucas'. It's at this point that the movie's last act becomes a foregone conclusion and I started looking at my watch, waiting for the inevitable reunion. If you're a screenwriter, what do you do if the true story you're adapting for a Hollywood feature happens to have a Hollywood ending anyway? I guess in this case, if you're screenwriter Sergio Sanchez, you just wouldn't change it because audiences have to go home happy, but there's still this unavoidable feeling of predictability that hangs over the proceedings and hampers the emotional release felt at the end. Still, it's really well done and if I hadn't been told it was a true story going in, there's probably little chance I'd believe it
The biggest controversy might stem from the casting of white movie stars Watts and McGregor as the "Bennetts," and while it's clearly yet another factually inaccurate Hollywood "whitewashing," the practice is sadly nothing new. As far as allegations that the local Asian's experiences were marginalized into supporting roles, if not flat-out ignored, I don't know what to say other than that's mostly true. But this particular story being told about this family on screen works, even if it may not be the one everyone wants, or is nearly as universal as the advertising would lead you to believe. Fortunately, films aren't (and shouldn't) be judged on those criteria so it's a moot point from where I sit, hardly hampering my appreciation of the work. The Impossible is ultimately a film about the triumph of the human spirit under the worst possible circumstances, and while feel-good elements and predictability wobbly co-exist alongside a horrifying natural disaster, everything eventually adds up to a well-crafted and frequently inspiring viewing experience.