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‘The Impossible’ is a visceral experience, although not for the faint of heart

‘The Impossible’ is a visceral experience, although not for the faint of heart

The Impossible

Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona

Written by Sergio G. Sànchez

Spain, 2012

It is a certainty that once every few years a film about a large scale disaster, natural or otherworldly, will be released in theatres. There is something about such terrifying events which strikes a particular nerve in people. Perhaps it is the idea of living vicariously through characters who must deal with what they fear most. Suddenly, it seems as though all hell has broken loose. One’s peaceful, tranquil existence is shattered to pieces by forces far, far beyond one’s control and the society they knew is no more. The time has arrived to genuinely struggle to survive through injury, disease and even fellow neighbours, whatever the case may be. Curiously, two of the most popular recent disaster films were more about the spectacle than the horror. Both were also directed by the oft criticized Roland Emerich. They were of course The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Each revelled in the showmanship of what disaster movie can bring to the table and had little basis in reality. Spaniard Juan Antonio Bayona took a much different approach with his film, The Impossible, a story about one family’s survival during the actual tsunami which hit Thailand just after Christmas in 2004.

Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) are taking the family for a wonderful holiday season vacation at a luxurious coastal Thai resort. Their children, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) are about to experience the most pleasant, exotic Christmas ever while Henry and Maria take advantage of a much deserved break from their work in Japan. Christmas day comes and goes, everyone is having a gay old time until, that is, an awe inspiring tsunami hits the country mercilessly, leaving everything in the region as rubble. The family is separated during the the event, with Maria and Lucas left together to fend off for themselves while Henry, Thomas and Simon must do the same, although in another part of demolished area. Tired, hungry, dehydrated and in some cases severely injured, they do their best to make out of the disaster alive and hope, against all odds, to reunite once again to head back home.

After having seen a rather solid amount of press screenings, one gains the ability to discern what type of personalities typically attend said events. Critics are a fickle bunch and would rather not get too excited or reveal too much of an emotional response while watching films. At least, that is what this movie reviewer gathers after more or less a year on the job for Sound on Sight. That was not the case during the screening for Juan Antonio Boyona’s The Impossible. Nay, there were very distinguishable ‘ohs’ ‘eeks’ and even some ‘sniff, sniffs’ to be heard in the audience. Indeed, Boyano has created a remarkably effective piece of cinema that is sure to affect movie goers in one way or another. Some might appreciate the bitter realism to be found in the movie, while others will assuredly be turned off by precisely how harsh it is. The film will be divisive, that much seems a certainty, and there are even a few little bumps in the road, but as an experience, The Impossible is shockingly potent at times.

The very structure of the film’s narrative, simple as it might come across, is utilized in such a deceptively effective fashion by the director that one wonders how is it that more filmmakers cannot juggles the same ingredients as Bayona does here in as productive a manner. Even though everyone heading into the movie knows full well what tragedy lies just ahead, the film still decides to take up a solid ten minutes or so to depict that end of the year first class vacation the protagonists venture on. Things go off with almost dream-like perfection. Kodak moments abound! Then, essentially without any warning whatsover, the first tidal wave hits the resort, demolishing all in its path. From that point onwards the audience follows Maria and Lucas as they come to terms with their own fate as well as what they assume tobe the grisly end met by the other members of the family. While the future chapters prove engaging in their own right, this portion here, which lasts about half an hour or so, just might be the most difficult to get through. Not because it is poorly acted or realized (Tom Holland, who plays the eldest son, is quite strong in fact), but rather because of how unforgiving it is with its visuals and the trauma of the aftershock. Once Maria makes her way up to the surface, she immediately discovers the ruins around her. There is so much water remaining that the entire area is like a river, with her flowing along with it, as well as countless pieces of dangerous debris. She and Lucas struggle for their lives to find solid ground or anything they can grip onto to avoid become nothing more than cadavres floating down a muddy stream. The sequence is thrilling, expertly shot and edited and feels uncomfortably real. The Maria-Lucas sequence offers the bleakest depiction of the tsunami’s aftermath.

Rather than cut between the Maria-Lucas scenes and the Henry-Samual-Thomas scenes, director Bayona allows each story play out in full until they converge at long last. The decision is welcomed one seeing as it allows each story to breath as much as they should as opposed to constantly cutting away just as each segment is winning over the viewer’s interest. Once the film shifts to Henry and the other sons, it creates either one of two effects. When the latter opts for a path or action that the audience knows will not lead him closer to his family, it adds to some of the discomforting tension considering that, by this time, the audience is aware of his wife’s whereabouts. There are some risks associated with that technique however as some viewers may feel it a mistake to follow Henry’s part of the story with the benefit of having already witnessed  Maria’s and Lucas’ fate. Director Boyona does just barely enough however to leave the viewer hanging as to whether or not Maria survived, although one would be hard pressed to assume that she did not. The Impossible is at its strongest however when it spends a fair amount of time with both groups in and around the resort following mother nature’s attack, There is something merciless about scenes where people, already severely injured, feel forced to keep on walking, climbing in order to find loved ones who may or may not be alive. Visually, the movie has some arresting moments, with a handful of shots depicting the destruction caused by the tsunami which will shock some viewers. The Impossible was no 200 million dollar enterprise, but the filmmakers extracted everything they could out of the dollars they were permitted to spend.

Kudos to Naomi Watts, who clearly was willing to get into character as much possible. The makeup effects for her injuries are absolutely grotesque, enough to have some people look away even. The performance involves a lot of looking fatigued, sad and ill, but Watts give it her all, as does McGregor, who is given a slightly wider arrangement of emotions to play with. Interestingly enough, the standout is Tom Holland as Lucas. He is supposed to be a ‘brave beyond his years’ type of fellow and Holland is very much up to the task, striking a balance of maturity and childlike instincts that practically makes him, rather than either Maria or Henry, the character with whom the audience feels safest. Some may criticize the film for developing a child character who seems to have more of the qualities adults normally do (in fact, almost every time movie pulls that off, a fair number of people groan), yet Holland is so good it becomes rather easy to accept.

The Impossible is at time a gut-wrenching experience. Despite it being good, one hesitates to say that it is a must-see movie. It really depends on what one wants to see. The early goings of Bayona’s film are very intense, which could easily turn off the faint of heart. If one is up for a pretty intense disaster flick, the anti-Emerich disaster movie if you will, The Impossible might up their alley.

-Edgar Chaput