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The Impossible (2012)

January 4, 2013

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written by: Sergio G. Sánchez

produced by: Álvaro Augustin, Belen Atienza and Enrique López Lavigne

directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona

rating: PG-13 (for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity)

runtime: 113 min.

U.S. release date: December 21, 2012 (limited) and January 4, 2012 (wide) 

 

For a follow-up to his excellent feature-film debut, “The Orphanage“, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has made a stunning film with “The Impossible”.  With the same creative team intact, he has made a film that had me genuinely choked-up within the first 15 minutes. Just from a filmmaking standpoint though, this harrowing film about the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami is breathtaking, as Bayona and his crew seemingly recreate what took place on that horrible day. It’s an amazing achievement, free of identifiable CGI gloss, but where “The Impossible” truly succeeds is how it hits us emotionally, as it follows one family’s struggle during a real-world tragedy. That it’s based on an actual survival account is even more amazing.

We’re introduced to a British family as they fly to their vacation destination on the coast of Thailand. They are off to enjoy their Christmas holiday away from their home in Japan. Maria (Naomi Watts) clutches her armrest through turbulence and wonders if they left their alarm system on while Henry (Ewan McGregor) wonders ponders his job stability. These are natural thoughts they are trying to get away from. They are with their three sons, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergrast), the squabbling youngest, and Lucas (Tom Holland) is getting to the age where he doesn’t want to be treated like a kid anymore. This is all typical family behavior, but soon none of these thoughts will matter.

Arriving at their resort in Khao Lak on Christmas Eve, the family relaxes, taking in the beauty of their environment. They record their time frolicking on the beach, opening presents and raising floating lanterns into the night sky with the rest of the resort guests. It’s an idyllic time, the kind where wonderful memories are created.

 

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Then, on the day after Christmas, what could’ve been a lazy, carefree day, changes into a horrific nightmare. Around mid-morning a rumble could be felt, maybe it was heard, it’s hard to say. Henry is at the pool with the younger boys, Marie is found reading a book not far off and Lucas was doing his own thing close by. Something is not right. The pages of Marie’s book start to turn on their own.  Birds become agitated and restless.  Immediately after Marie sees the palm trees (that stood tall between the shoreline and the resort) topple over, she knows it’s too late. An immense wall of ocean water pounds the resort, destroying everything, ripping apart the family and tossing them in different directions. 

Despite the frenzied confusion of waves, Marie and Lucas manage to find each other and struggle to stay together with every fiber of their being. As Lucas struggles to stay above water, his mother is shredded by underwater debris, causing serious injury. After several exhausting attempts, they finally manage to hold on to each other and Lucas realizes he must be the protector. This sinks in even more once the waves subside and they are left to work their way through a sea of destruction, surrounded by dead bodies and animals strewn amid uncertainty.

With the help of locals, the two eventually make it to an overwhelmed hospital where a near-death Marie receives treatment. Lucas is left to watch and eventually find ways to help others who have lost loved ones. He fears that the two are all that is left of their family.

All this time, Henry was thinking the same thing as he managed to keep Thomas and Simon safe. They have found a small group of survivors staying at what is left of the resort. Some of them are barely hanging on, others are getting impatient and angry, stemming from fear and panic. Henry frantically searches for his wife and eldest son as search and rescue teams slowly begin to make their way into the decimated area. Overcome with the death and destruction around him, Henry fights to maintain hope as other shocked and disoriented men, women and children around him desperately try to survive.

 

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Again, this is a true story. Throughout the entire movie that thought repeated in my head. Considering that, it’s clear where the film’s title comes in. It seems impossible that this family of five could have survived. It’s amazing that they found each other after being separated. But they did and it’s a miracle.

Screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez (who also wrote “The Orphanage”) may have made the family Brits from the Spaniards that they are in real life, but that’s of no concern. Bayona and Sánchez know that authenticity matters in retelling this account and portraying one of the most terrifying natural disaster’s the world has ever seen with as much realism

The word ‘immersive’ is often used in my films, but that’s the word that repeatedly comes to mind when thinking of  “The Impossible”.  By the film’s end, you feeling like a survivor, wretched with emotion and feelings of guilt over those that didn’t make it. Bayona’s focus and concern is to make sure viewers feel everything, every emotion and obstacle the characters experience and never in a cloying or manipulative way. From the beginning of the film, where Bayona provides a black screen offering ominous guttural sounds to the engulfing flashbacks that haunt a delusional Marie, we are pulled in to this film as if forced by a vacuum.

Fortunately, Bayona doesn’t pummel us through the feature, he allows us time to catch our breath, giving us time to contemplate life and maybe what we would do in such a situation. He knows the tale to be told isn’t one that will bombard the audience with loss upon loss. Thankfully, there are also rays of hope that shine throughout the film, building in their brightness through acts of kindness and touching openness that we see int he characters.

The reenactment of the tsunami is powerful and dramatic. It never once feels like an overabundance of CGI know-how, but rather something real. Its like another character altogether, albeit a violent one that builds to a distressing climax. Clint Eastwood did a sufficient job in replicating such a sequence for his film “Hereafter”, but that didn’t submerge moviegoers as Bayona does here. Here, when the tsunami hits, the camera is tossed around like a rag doll, giving us a palpable feeling of helplessness that weighs heavily on the heart. We bob up and down, then get sucked underwater and suddenly come up for air, making “The Impossible” the most emotionally exhausting theatrical experience of the year.

 

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We wouldn’t be sitting in our seats with such raw feeling if it wasn’t for the performances here. Across the board, the actors portraying the family members here are unbelievable. Watts and McGregor have proven themselves to be fine actors in the past, but here is probably the most demanding work of their careers. The way Watts conveys excruciating agony through painful expression and limited movement is outstanding. Sure, the make-up work is impeccable but she nails a challenging role with such openness and bravery. While McGregor’s Henry isn’t seriously  wounded, his pain is an emotional slow-burn. He has to keep a strong face for his boys, but there’s one particular moment when he totally looses after he’s able to briefly speak with his in-laws on a borrowed phone. It’s a hard-hitting breakdown scene that hits home.

Bayona is to be commended though with the natural performances he’s able to get out of these young boys. At no point do any of them really feel directed or like they’re acting. Holland is especially memorable in a breakout performance. The young man has to navigate his way through a series of complex emotions that would prove a challenge for any adult, but he maneuvers his way with an unassuming ease.

Despite the somber tone “The Impossible” has, this isn’t a doom and gloom disaster flick. Bayona is more concerned with showing us the miraculous nature of survival than creating a horror movie (although he’s good at that too).

There are some who may be dragging their feet when it comes to seeing “The Impossible”, held back by an understandable sense of trepidation toward the film. Nevertheless, this is a film that absolutely must be seen. It is an absorbing and poignant look at the fragile nature of the world  and our place in it.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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