Forget the human drama, which is so moving. Forget the Oscar-worthy performances. Forget the film’s tagline, “Nothing is more powerful than the human spirit.” Forget everything else that Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible does so efficiently. If there is one reason you should stop reading and go out to watch the film right now, it is the harrowing recreation of the Tsunami that struck the coasts of quite a few Eastern countries on December 26, 2004. There has been nothing more visceral, more splendid, and more terrifying to reach movie screens in 2012. As the huge waves came crashing down, I felt numb, transfixed in my seat as if I was really there, as if those monster waves were crashing down on me. I can only imagine what some of the survivors might’ve felt. When the horror was finally over, I thought, “I hope to God this is as close as I am ever going to get to one of those.” The Impossible does a lot of things right, but that one sequence stands tall above the rest of the film.
Right in the middle of this disaster is the Bennett family: Father Henry (Ewan McGregor), his wife Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas, and Simon. They’re separated into two groups after the Tsunami hits, and the film follows their travails. Those looking for a more serious film into the impact of the disaster can look elsewhere. The film isn’t kidding when it says it is about one family’s struggles. Maria and Lucas obviously have the more interesting journey. She takes the brunt of the impact from the initial waves and has severe bruising on her body besides a huge wound on her right thigh while Lucas is relatively unharmed. There is a quite brilliant and impactful scene where Lucas catches a glimpse of his mother’s breast. He immediately looks away and points it out to his mother, “I am sorry, Mum. I can’t look at you like this.” She is forced to cede the lead to him, and all of a sudden, he’s expected to be the caretaker. He’s expected to be a man when he is all of 12 years old. It is to the director’s credit that Lucas never comes across as one of those grown-up, annoying children in similar films. He displays an incredible level of maturity but is still a kid at heart, and there are a number of scenes that bring this out: The rush of emotions that surge through his face when he finds another survivor whom he’s searching for or the fear when he is unable to find his mother are great examples of this.
Henry’s story isn’t as interesting on its own, but the director uses it effectively to give us a slightly larger look at the impact. He sends his sons along with another group to the mountains where they’ll be safe if another set of waves hit and continues his search for his wife and son. His search brings him to another group of survivors, one of whom offers him a phone to make a call home. He takes up the offer and breaks down on the phone to his dad. It is one of the film’s most emotionally resonant scenes and brought me to tears. Henry has tried to be a strong and controlled figure in front of his younger children, but being in this group of survivors, some of whom are in a similar predicament, and listening to their stories brings it all out. (The little scene that immediately comes after this one is used for dramatic purpose, but I am willing to let that one slide.) Towards the end, the film does get a tad melodramatic, some would even say manipulative, and uses cinematic conventions to bring the group together. But I didn’t have any issues with that. The soaring music might’ve led me on ever so slightly, but the catharsis was still very real and very powerful.
Of course, it does help when the performances in service of the film are as good as the ones from Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland. Watts has the showier performance, and therefore is sure to be noticed come awards time. But McGregor is just as effective, if not more so. Together, they form a convincing pair and deliver extremely powerful performances. Tom Holland is the scene-stealer though, and it is difficult to sometimes to take your eyes off him even in the scenes he shares with his more senior colleagues. (It is heartening to see the great number of young actors who have come through Hollywood in the past couple of years, definitely bodes well for the future.)
The Impossible is a very good, if not great, film. It tells the story of one family’s survival in the midst of one of the worst natural disasters in the history of mankind, and it doesn’t aim to be anything other than that. The trinity of great performances definitely help overcome some of the film’s shortcomings while there’s also a huge feel-good factor to be had at the end. And it is worth watching just to experience those two aspects.