The Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 was undoubtedly one of the greatest tragedies of the last decade. With a magnitude of over 9.0, the earthquake off the west coast of Sumatra triggered tsunamis to occur all around the coastal cities surrounding the Indian Ocean, flooding them with waves almost 100ft high and causing over 200,000 causalities. The tsunami is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest natural disasters along with the Haitian Earthquake of 2010, so it’s safe to say I was a little hesitant about The Impossible, a film that tracks a family’s hectic search for one another in the wake of the tsunami’s catastrophic devastation. I was worried that the film was going to be nothing more than a quick cash-grab, whose only intention for setting it amongst this tragedy was to mine the emotional turmoil in order to make a profit. Thankfully, I couldn’t have been farther from the truth, because in the end, The Impossible is less about the actual tsunami and more about the power and unending determination of the human spirit in the face of disaster and crisis. While it’s not perfect, The Impossible is an extremely visceral and powerful film, one that sticks with you days after the credits roll.
The film follows a family taking a much-needed vacation along the coast of Thailand. What at first appears to be the perfect family getaway turns into the disaster of a lifetime as the tsunami hits and immediately splits up the family amongst the ruins of a decimated Thai coastline. Maria (Naomi Watts) and her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) get stuck together in the midst of the sweeping floods. Meanwhile, her husband, Henry (Ewan McGregor), and their two younger kids manage to make it to safety and begin to search for their missing mother and son.
You can’t talk about The Impossible without immediately talking about the tsunami and the way they portray it on film. What could have easily been a CGI laden mess instead turns out to be one of the most harrowing moments of this incredible year in film. The 10-15 minute sequence is the epitome of edge-of-your-seat storytelling as you are placed in the middle of this unbelievable disaster. That first moment when the tsunami hits is one of the most striking images of the year, thanks to Juan Antonio Bayona’s impeccable direction. Bayona is originally known for his debut horror film, The Orphanage, and his experience in that genre helps him craft a truly haunting and frightening disaster. He shoots the entire sequence as if the water and the flooding is your typical horror villain. When that water first hits you are truly frightened and dumbfounded as it rushes over you. The water overwhelms you constantly as you watch these characters, and vicariously yourself, struggle to stay above the water and to avoid the insurmountable amount of deadly wreckage all around. It’s amazing how he is able to elicit the same response from the audience as if they are watching Michael Myers approach our protagonist.
However, once the actual tsunami settles down the movie switches gears and becomes about the aftermath and the struggles of this family as they do everything humanly possible to find one another. Thankfully, this is where the film truly comes into its own as it displays real human emotion without pulling any punches. While the tsunami sequence is fantastic, the rest of the film could have easily buckled underneath the weight of the dazzling opener; however, Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez mange to make the rest of the film as captivating and emotional as the tsunami sequence thanks to solid plot progression and fantastic performances by the entire cast.
While I have never been her biggest proponent, Naomi Watts gives the performance of a lifetime in this film. She is perfect as the determined yet brutally battered wife that is dead-set on making sure her son gets out of this tragedy safely. She is willing to do whatever it takes even though she is gravely injured herself. The range of emotions Watts goes through throughout the film is pretty astounding, and the fact that she manages to completely nail everyone is even more amazing (the horrific look on Watts’ face as she’s taken to a hospital is soul crunching). However, the real surprise is Tom Holland, who plays her eldest son Lucas. At first, Lucas came off as nothing more than the typical angst ridden pre-teen, but as the film progresses and he’s put into more and more precarious situations, Holland really comes into his own and manages to stand toe-to-toe with fantastic actors like Watts and McGregor, who is equally as powerful, particularly during a tragic phone call home that is bound not to leave a dry eye in the theater.
The greatest strength of the film, however, is the way in which it manages to obtain real human sentiment from its audience. Everything about the film works in tandem with one another to create a true emotionally resonate experience. The film spends the perfect amount of time setting up the family and their dynamic so that their actions throughout the film are believable and in turn connect with the audience. By the end of the film, we feel like we have been through this entire ordeal right alongside this family. The film is so visceral and deliberate that it brings out real reactions from the audience. There are numerous times throughout this film that you’ll gasp in horror and shock, and then fifteen minutes later you’ll be holding back tears. It’s an amazing achievement and these emotions truly stick with you after you leave the theater.
That being said, because the majority of the film is so emotional and affecting, the scenes that don’t fully work come off as a bit melodramatic. Particularly, a scene near the climax, which I won’t spoil for you, seems pretty contrived and artificial. It’s unfortunate because the scene that follows could have been wonderful but instead seems more melodramatic than really poignant because of the scene that preceded it. Thankfully, this isn’t too prevalent throughout the film, outside of the last act. However, because these scenes are obviously the end of the film, it does retroactively hurt some of the film because it leaves you with a bit of a bad taste in your mouth.
Melodramatics aside, this is still an extremely powerful and meaningful film that perfectly captures the devastation and ordeals that millions faced during the 2004 Tsunami. It may not stick the landing perfectly, but The Impossible is a remarkable mediation on the determination of the human spirit in the face of adversary of any kind. It’s an honest and heartfelt movie that you aren’t likely to forget anytime soon.
Review by James Hausman