Photo by PoPville flickr user ep_jhu
Last night I watched “The Impossible” with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. The film is about the true story of the Belon family who miraculously survived the deadly tsunami that hit Thailand on December 26, 2004 and killed 230,000 people. Watching “The Impossible” I already knew the ending. It’s no spoiler alert. You know the family survives, but that clearly wasn’t the intention of the film. The journey of a family played a supporting role to the real story of sheer devastation that happened in an instant, with no notice at all. This film was about impact.
“The Impossible” opens in darkness. A thunderous sound, that you assume is the tsunami, grows louder and louder. Seconds later the screen comes alight and the sound climaxes as a plan soars overhead. We are introduced to the Bennett family – Maria, Henry, Lucas, Thomas, and Simon (10, 8, and 5, respectively) – on a plane coming into Thailand to spend Christmas at a beautiful resort right on the Indian Ocean. The first twenty or so minutes of the film are a purposeful build-up. The family relaxes, enjoys a beautiful Christmas day, and expects the next days to be as perfect as the last. The scenes show peace, comfort, and blissful ignorance. However, the audience knows what’s coming and my heart raced as I waited for the impending moment.
Director Juan Antonio Boyana (The Orphanage) did respect to the experience of going through this disaster. He wanted you to feel the terror, pain, and anguish that undoubtedly surrounded the moments just before, during, and after the tsunami. Mission accomplished. You watch the sea rise up, people freeze and brace for the impact, and then you’re at Maria. She’s clinging for dear life to a palm tree and shrieks with terror. It’s real. This is happening. She hears the screams of her oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), and watches as he is whisked away by the sea. You feel her maternal instincts as she lunges into the wave, leaving the seeming safety of the palm tree, to get to him. Another wall of water comes rushing to shore and the terror occurs all over again. It is truly unbelievable.
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Boyana smartly switches between the characters navigating above the water, desperately reaching for each other, and being pulled and injured by the treacherous waters below. All kinds of debris, natural and unnatural, swirl beneath the waves and you can feel the anguish as Maria gets torn apart. Maria and Lucas’ journey continues for a while into the movie before the audience is reunited with Henry and the younger two sons. In fact, as we become lost in the overrun, rural hospital that Maria and Lucas end up in, it is unclear when and how the other family members are going to come back into the fold.
After experiencing the tsunami and immediate aftermath the rest of the movie doesn’t quite live up to those moments – expertly played by Naomi Watts and young Tom Holland. It is their determination to survive and stay together that drives the better part of the first half of the movie. Ewan McGregor is no slouch but his search for Maria and Lucas was probably downplayed due to the simple fact of time. Things needed to get wrapped up in a bow.
Showing the impact of the disaster is really the focal point. The disaster and ruin is shown throughout the film – including one very intense flashback. Multiple times in the film Boyana would start with tight shots and expanded outwards, allowing the audience to absorb the environment and the utter endlessness of the devastation. The rush of water, the immediate aftermath at the resort, the inundated hospital, and dozens and dozens of dead bodies wrapped up on a tarmac, were shown from above several times in the film.
The film is a story of resiliency, of family, of the kindness of strangers. The name does it justice – it’s just so unbelievable – but, as I’ve heard many times, the movie is made in the editing room. No one who was not there that day can ever truly understand the fear and human anguish that was caused. Boyana does a great job of bringing the audience as close to that feeling as possible. However, as scenes became necessary to wrap the movie up and bring the family back together, the film seemed routine, rushed, and familiar. We’ve seen many of these scenes before and it undermined the incredible true story this film is built around. Additionally, the film is actually based around a Spanish family, and is a Spanish-American film. According to Boyana, “it proved impossible to raise funding without international actors.” What a sad commentary, that has received minimal attention in the press.
All that being said, much of the emotion in the film feels very genuine. Boyana makes a point to put in an intro line into the film, citing that the fact that thousands and thousands of families were ripped a part in an instance. This film is really homage to that solemn fact. I did highly enjoy young Lucas, played by Tom Holland, whose sincerity warmed and broke your heart all at the same time. While “The Impossible” doesn’t rank high on my best movies of all time, or even best movies in the last year, it’s still a high impact cinematic experience – worth seeing on the big screen. Viewers beware – this film is intense, graphic, and emotional.
“The Impossible” is playing at Landmark E Street Cinema, AMC Loews Georgetown 14, Regal Ballston Common 12, AMC Loews Shirlington 7, and Regal Majestic 20.