MOVIE REVIEW: The Impossible



For sheer volume's sake, there will likely (and hopefully) never be a larger human tragedy in our lifetime than either the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami and the 2010 Haitian earthquake.  Both natural disasters claimed over 250,000 people, forever changing the many lives affected by it.  The saddest part is, because it happened in predominantly lesser-known smaller foreign countries, the American audience has largely forgotten and ignored the huge losses experienced in those areas.  No one held a tsunami or earthquake relief concert because it didn't happen to "us."  Maybe that top 1% we all gloat about wrote a check once or dropped an extra buck in a collection plate, but tragedies on this scale leave lasting scars. 

In eight years since the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, only one major Hollywood picture, Clint Eastwood under-appreciated Hereafter from 2010 had the courage to touch on it at all, using a fictional experience of a French TV reporter who survived a near-death experience.  No single movie can characterize or chronicle an event on the scale of the 2004 natural disaster.  No single movie can tell every point of view, every experience, every loss, every triumph, or every story.

What one single movie can do is raise our remembrance and honor to what transpired on that fateful day.  What one single movie can do is give at least one true story profound respect and realism.  Most importantly, what the beauty of any movie can do is remind us all of the hope and survival that rises from the depths of tragedy and loss.  Much in the same way that any war movie is essentially an anti-war message, a respectful movie that portrays a real natural disaster, not the Roland Emmerich (2012, The Day After Tomorrow) variety, is always more about survival more than disaster and death.

The critically acclaimed film, The Impossible, from Spanish director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) and starring Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts and Golden Globe nominee Ewan McGregor, brings that level of respect and realism to the events that unfolded for one family eight years ago.  Based on the true story of Spanish survivors (turned Australian for the film), The Impossible is an extremely moving and often thrilling portrait of survival amidst terrific odds.  Guided by outstanding performances, the film deserves the remembrance and honor it seeks.

Watts and McGregor play Maria and Henry parents of three boys, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) on holiday in Sri Lanka for Christmas.  The enjoyment of their beachfront resort is tragically interrupted by the devastating walls of water and destruction.  In a harrowing sequence right up there with the pulse-racing plane crash scene in Robert Zemeckis's Flight this year, the tsunami disaster is recreated with visceral force, speed, and detail achieved by both practical stunt work and seamless special effects.  It makes the opening scene of Hereafter look like one fat kid's cannonball into a pool.  Without a doubt, it's as hard to watch as it is thrilling.

Through the initial disaster itself, we follow Maria and the eldest son, Lucas, who manage to cling to each other and survive the onslaught.  Maria is very badly injured and Lucas takes it upon himself to help her.  When the waters subside, they are taken to crowded hospital where Maria needs critical treatment.  Neither saw what happened to Henry and the other two boys, who were last in the hotel pool when the tsunami hit.  All around them, Maria and Henry see victims and scenes of many missing people, deflating their hope of seeing the others again or even alive.

Unfortunately due to the indulgent marketing of the movie, we know too much of what is going to happen with McGregor and the other two boys.  If you can avoid it, DO NOT see this movie's trailer at all.  It gives away FAR too much.  Had that not been the case, the level of grief and suspense with The Impossible would be far greater.  It cost this movie a whole star from me.  A good chunk of this movie's emotion and draw is stolen by a bad marketing department over at Summit Entertainment.  Like What Lies Beneath and Castaway before it, shame on a trailer for ruining its own goal and efforts.

Nevertheless, what is portrayed and performed in The Impossible carries enough intensity, challenge, and emotion to stir and reward your investment.  Both Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play sheer tearful anguish in such strong believable ways that I cannot see many of their peers, male or female, matching without looking like a pair of pretty Hollywood faces with a few makeup smudges and put-on crocodile tears.  Naomi's utterly exhausting and convincing portrayal of a tragedy-stricken parent is enormously amazing and carries the film, even from a hospital bed.  She has already been nominated for a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actress for this role and I have to think that a sure Oscar nomination is not far behind.

McGregor comports himself right there with Watts from a supporting actor standpoint, but the second extremely powerful performance comes from young newcomer Tom Holland as the oldest son Lucas, in his film debut after performing the 5th anniversary Billy Elliot lead on the London stage.  Rarely leaving his mother's side other than to help the causes of other survivors nearby, he is commonly the lens by which director J.A. Bayona presents the scope and size of this unfolding tragedy.  While us adults will initially connect with either McGregor or Watts and their drives to protect, we end up as witnesses through a child's eye often in The Impossible.  Holland becomes the heart of the picture and the effect is a powerful one.  

Finally, with no offense to Clint Eastwood, Hollywood has found a single movie that can attempt to tell this disaster's story with hope, respect, and power.  A tip of the hat has to go to Spanish director J.A. Bayona for bringing this story to the screen.   Yes, it's very likely keenly constructed Hollywood melodrama with a depressing edge, but it works for its realism and respect.  I'd gladly take The Impossible and its true story over a hundred Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close's that exploit real history and highly emotional tragedy with contrived fictional stories and characters.

LESSON #1: THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS THAT YOU WEREN'T THERE THAT FATEFUL DECEMBER DAY-- First and foremost, this has to be said.  Pray, give pause, or reflect to whatever deity, cause, spirit, or energy you hold dear that you didn't have to go through this colossal and terrible natural disaster eight years ago.  This movie presents just one story of survival of many, but all of those are grossly outnumbered by the thousands of losses and deaths.  This movie only scratches the surface of just how horrible this event was.  Count yourself thankful that you didn't have to be there.

LESSON #2: MAKING THE TOUGH CHOICES YOU HOPE YOU NEVER HAVE TO MAKE-- Many of our family characters, especially the parents, have to make extremely difficult choices in hopes of improving someone else's chance at survival.  We can play arm-chair quarterback to what we would do in those circumstances, but it's irrelevant until that unfortunate situation finds you for real.  Like Lesson #1, hope and be thankful that you never have to be in the position.

LESSON #3: THE HOPE, COURAGE, AND PERSEVERANCE FOUND IN GREAT HUMAN TRAGEDY-- As advertised, The Impossible is just one story of survival from the 2004 natural disaster out of many.  While bad news is what makes headlines and loss gets emphasized first, slowly but surely in the aftermath of tragic events on this scale, the little and incredible survival stories of hope, courage, and perseverance emerge to provide good news and shed light on humanity overcoming dark history.