Natural disasters are easy prey for filmmakers wherein the melodrama is grown organically out of the true story the film portrays. This is usually their downfall, as the events and performances are so over-the-top and seeping with mushiness that they get thrown onto a Cable Network and forgotten–all for the best. Then there is one that goes against the odds stacked up against it, a melodrama based on true events that takes place during a harrowing experience that is the entire film-worthy package, meant to be seen on a big screen. The Impossible, directed by Juan Antonio Bayona of The Orphanage (2007), is that movie. Set against the devastating tsunami that hit Thailand the day after Christmas in 2004, resulting in over 5,000 deaths, over 2,800 missing people, and that which created 1,480 orphans in just Thailand alone, The Impossible is one family’s true story of survival. It is a story that will cause you to gasp at the horror of the situation and rejoice at the unwavering perseverance that keeps them from losing their faith that they will survive the unthinkable tragedy that befalls them.
Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three children, Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) arrive in Thailand from Shanghai just in time for the Christmas holiday. Originally from England they have been living in Shanghai because of a work assignment of Henry’s; Maria has put her work as a doctor on hold for the duration. The weather is gorgeous in Thailand, blue skies and calm seas: the perfect holiday vacation it would seem. Just as quickly as the family settles into their upgraded beachside cabana does tragedy strike. They are at the pool, enjoying the sunshine, playing ball in the water or reading a book in the shade. Then the wind seems to change, the birds squawk and fly away rapidly, and the noise of the sea grows stronger. The first wave hits, a towering mound of water that collides through the outer buildings headed right for the pool. With only seconds to brace themselves, Henry, Maria, Lucas, Simon, and Thomas are attacked by the tidal wave–an opponent that is unstoppable in its wake. The scene is suffocating, frightening, and full of terror. Your breath escapes you, your stomach turns, and everything else becomes a distant thought as all of your attention is suddenly placed on the aftermath of what you have just seen.
The Impossible is then split into two story lines, one dealing with Maria and Lucas and the other Henry, Simon, and Thomas. Unbeknownst to the viewer is how the latter fared in the wake of the tsunami until after Maria and Lucas’ story is told. This decision by screenwriter Sergio Sánchez, who had direct contact with the based-on Alvarez Belon family and their first hand account of the events, is perfect to induce tension and suspense. Maria and Lucas go through an ordeal that is unbelievable, if it were not real. To call the scenes of them in the water, fighting for their lives, suffering injury after injury, anything but gruesome is incomprehensible; and imagining anyone could actually live through it is difficult, to say the least. The Impossible does not hold back on displaying the truth of what these people endured, what their bodies went through, and how the fight to live they possessed is far beyond what anyone could possibly imagine, even a Hollywood screenwriter. The realness displayed, the lack of gloss and polish assigned to the camerawork and the actors themselves creates more for a viewer’s experience; call it manipulation if you like but when its done this well you cannot control yourself. Naomi Watts’ Maria is beaten to hell and back, her body a mangled mess of torn flesh and internal bleeding. Her son Lucas suffers as well, but somehow goes unscathed from severe injury. The harrowing experience is created with superb production design and special effects work by the filmmaking team and it does not go unnoticed by the viewer. But what sets The Impossible apart is the outward display of generosity and care given by and between others; the horrors of the water invading eventually ends but the story has only just begun for the family.
It does not take much research to know that the Alvarez Belon family was reunited. It is the getting there in The Impossible that is incredibly moving. Watts and McGregor are at their best, performing beyond expectations and showing incredible emotion that they sustain in the movie even when bedridden, unable to speak clearly, or exhausted beyond comprehension. The most surprising aspect, and what saves the movie from being melodramatic sap, is the performance of child-actor Tom Holland as Lucas, and his on-screen brothers Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin). Child actors can be disastrous for a picture if they cannot act, or have been given poor direction. Juan Antonio Bayona could not have cast a better group of child actors as each one of them is marvelous. Lucas holds the greatest amount of screen time, and endures the most difficult emotional and physical challenges, and Tom Holland performs amazingly. Without Holland handling Lucas the way he does, and being able to go through the emotional roller coaster this poor child endures, The Impossible would be just another failure at sensationalized sentiment. It is not.
The Impossible is a film you may never want to watch twice, but you should see at least once. It touches your soul with the incredible ways people come together to help one another. It makes the bond of family and faith realize itself before your eyes, and it never fails to grab your attention, enlist empathy, and make sure that this story is one you shall never forget. It has done the seemingly impossible by making a melodrama that does not overreach the realistic boundaries of feelings and emotional response; it hits the notes just right, and while being a traumatizing experience it is meant to be one, and therefore, it is just right.
Film’s Festival Page: The Impossible
Special Screenings Section
Country: Spain / USA
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Screenwriter: Sergio G. Sánchez
Producers: Belén Atienza, Álvaro Augustin, Enrique López-Lavigne, Ghislain Barrois, Jaime Ortiz de Artiñano
Executive Producers: Sandra Hermida, Javier Ugarte
Cinematographer: Óscar Faura
Editors: Elena Ruiz, Bernat Vilaplana
Production Designer: Eugenio Caballero
Music: Fernando Velázquez
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Marta Etura, Sönke Möhring, Geraldine Chaplin
Running Time (minutes): 114