REVIEW: The Impossible (2012)

Was this powerful disaster drama robbed of a Best Picture nomination? 

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Due to the efforts of Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay, cinema-goers are accustomed to seeing images of mass disaster, to the point that we have become desensitised to destruction and perceive it as innocuous entertainment. But prepare yourselves, because director Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible will scare the living daylights out of you. A horrifyingly vivid dramatisation of the Boxing Day 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, the movie is a harrowing reminder of the reality of real-life disasters. This is only Bayona’s second feature film after 2007’s The Orphanage, but the filmmaker hit it out of the park, working with a perfectly balanced script courtesy of Sergio G. Sánchez who based the film on an amazing true-life story of one family who survived the tragedy. It’s a tale ripe for motion picture treatment, as it’s almost too unbelievable to be true and it reinforces the determination of the human spirit.

For Christmas vacation, married pair Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) take their three children Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) to Thailand. Staying at a luxurious beach resort, they enjoy a lovely Christmas together free from the interference of work. While the family enjoy a morning of pool activities on Boxing Day, tragedy strikes, with a massive tsunami hitting the coast which decimates the resort and splits everyone up. In the surging waters, Maria and Lucas find one another, though Maria has suffered severe wounds that may prove life-threatening if she doesn’t receive medical attention. Meanwhile, after the wave hit, Henry managed to find Thomas and Simon, keeping them safe while he sets out to find his wife and other son.

One of the primary strengths of The Impossible is that the protagonists feel like a genuine family unit. Their conversations and interactions will be familiar to everyone who grew up with a family, and the depiction of Christmas morning looks like a genuine slice of life, especially since we view everything through the lens of the family’s video camera. Developing credible characters amplifies the story’s power, as you’ll shed tears on a consistent basis whenever family members are reunited or something hard-hitting occurs. Also powerful is the depiction of the overwhelming sense of community and unity which transpired in Thailand following the disastrous tsunami. Although the Thai people lost everything they owned, they waded through the floor waters right after the wave in order to help the tourists. The Impossible does not solely focus on a Western family working to overcome the odds; it emphasises the help they received from others, with Thai people driving them to safer places, offering them clothes and nursing their wounds. It’s this overwhelming sense of humanity and heart which keeps The Impossible from being a brainless special effects demo reel.

Clint Eastwood staged a depiction of the Boxing Day tsunami in his 2010 endeavour Hereafter, a sequence which earned the picture an Oscar nomination for its CGI. But The Impossible tops Eastwood’s efforts in execution and staging. I have no idea just how Bayona and his crew pulled it off, but the tsunami looks thoroughly real, and the special effects are seamless. Furthermore, the tsunami scenes themselves are heart-wrenchingly intense; as the wave enters frame and barrels towards the characters, one has to cover their mouth. And watching the characters wade around in the perilous waters full of sharp debris is almost unbearably visceral. If you’ve ever wondered how a tsunami would kill you, The Impossible will provide an eye-opening lesson. The scenes of the destructive aftermath are equally phenomenal, as good as anything you’ll glimpse in a big-budget blockbuster. Just as impressive is the make-up; the images of wounds and sickness are hauntingly realistic. We’ve all seen the likes of Saw and Hostel, but the injuries here look genuinely horrifying, and it’s amazing that Bayona could get away with such content within the constraints of a PG-13 rating. And it’s a miracle that he achieved such technical luminosity on a scant $45 million budget. Now watch as Bayona is offered every single disaster and action movie currently in pre-production.

It’s impossible to overstate how exceptional the actors are, as they ground the movie in a sense of reality and emotion pivotal to the success of the feature. Watts earned The Impossible its sole Oscar nomination for her astonishing portrayal of Maria. The British-Australian actress shouldered the most amount of responsibility here, as she had to convincingly play a loving mother whilst also conveying fear, injury and illness. And Watts pulled it off with seemingly little effort. Also great is McGregor, who’s hugely charismatic and believable, and who handles the emotional aspects of the role with utmost confidence. It’s an amazingly multifaceted performance that never feels false or flat. And then there are the boys; Holland, Joslin and Pendergast look and interact like siblings. Holland was given the most to do and the young actor did a bravura job with the material. A lot of the Thai extras here were reportedly actual survivors from the tsunami, a fact which amplifies the movie’s power even more.

People may deride The Impossible for using British protagonists when the true-life family was in fact Spanish, and for employing a few Hollywood-ish touches here and there. But to do so would be foolhardy. Besides, Watts’ real-life counterpart was involved in every aspect of the production to ensure that her story was told right. The Impossible is a rare type of motion picture, an Oscar-calibre drama that’s not unbearably tedious or dumbed-down. It packs a great deal of emotional power, it’s overwhelmingly human, and it keeps you thoroughly interested from start to end. Most remarkable is that, through all the doom and gloom, the movie still provides a sense of hope. This is easily one of 2012’s best movies, and the fact that it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars is genuinely baffling.

5 stars

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