The will to survive and the bond of family are two very familiar themes in storytelling, so it’s true The Impossible is not breaking any new thematic ground. But framed against the horrors of the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004, it’s a powerful and personal story that won’t soon be forgotten.
The one scene everyone immediately calls out in The Impossible is of the tsunami itself, which is as realistic as has ever been portrayed in a film. It’s both terrifying and exhilarating, a remarkably realistic feat for a project operating on a somewhat limited budget of $45 million. Not only is it shot and framed well, most of the water effects seem to have been done practically, which feels like you’re right in the middle of the chaos.
The other aspect that stands out is the performances, particularly those of Naomi Watts and Tom Holland. Over the past decade, Watts has established herself as one of the premiere dramatic actresses working today, and she deservedly earned her second Oscar nomination for her work here.
I doubt any other character in 2012 had to go through as many trying circumstances either, as she’s in various stages of excruciating pain or literally trying to stave off death for most of her screen time. It’s a gutsy role both physically demanding and emotionally draining, and we feel it through her every breath.
Holland plays her eldest son of three in his early teens, and he joins Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis as the year’s most revelatory discovery. This type of material is no easy task, regardless of age, so it’s all the more impressive how he capably holds his own against his veteran costars. Meanwhile, Holland evokes remarkable pathos in the moments when he has to act on his own, perfectly walking the scared-brave tightrope everyone in the film is undertaking on some level.
The first half of The Impossible is near flawless. Following the tsunami, we stick with Watts and Holland basically in real time as they try to find safety and medical attention. There’s no score, and it’s a riveting piece of pure filmmaking.
However, an hour in it starts cross-cutting between the other half of the family, which consists of Ewan McGregor and the two youngest sons, and the raw intensity gradually begins to fade to become more traditionally movie-like. That’s not necessarily an outright bad thing, but the second-half writing is the weakest element by far.
It should come as no surprise there’s eventually some kind of reunion, with the scenes immediately preceding it greatly exaggerated narratively. The sequence still works because we’ve become so invested in these characters, but in the back of your mind you know what you’re seeing is fairly ridiculous and manipulative.
I’m not sure how the filmmakers could have addressed such an issue, because almost any ending you pick would feel “impossible” to a certain extent, but it remains a distinct flaw nevertheless. I’m curious how the direction they went with compares to what happened in real life.
Speaking of real life, the last interesting note is how the nationality of the actual family was switched from Spanish to British. I don’t know if there’s an underlying studio reason for that, or if they simply jumped at the chance to get actors of Watts and McGregor’s caliber. But considering how almost all of the principle crew is Spanish to begin with, it strikes as slightly odd and out of place.
The Impossible is only the second film from director Juan Antonio Bayona, who started out on 2007’s above-average horror film The Orphanage, yet he already seems like a seasoned pro. I have no idea what the man’s future ambitions are, but he definitely has the skills to be helming a huge Hollywood blockbuster in the near future.
The Impossible is a strong accomplishment all around and something everyone involved in can be proud about, a moving testament to one family’s love in the face of some of the worst life can throw your way.