Few natural disasters are as ingrained in my mind as the 2004 tsunami that decimated the coastal retreat of Khao Lak, Thailand; an event of such mind-boggling devastation, its total comprehension is virtually impossible to fathom for those of us who were not there. The shaky images captured by terrified tourists on their iPhones and other home video recording devices, flashing across our television screens were significant only in presenting the paralytic moment of impact and its immediate aftermath. But the overhead shots of earthy-colored rising tides consuming the coastline were strangely surreal, or perhaps even artificial; like a spectacular CGI effect created by Hollywood artisans instead of a raw and eviscerating act of Mother Nature.
I must confess to a naiveté. Until 2004 I don’t think I ever even heard the word ‘tsunami’ before – or perhaps had, but chose not to register it consciously as anything more than a big wave knocking over a few trees. Certainly, I had never seen one broadcast in real time and, God willing hope to never experience such a cataclysm in my own life. But in the days and weeks that followed, survivor testimonies began to filter through the media outlets. These were not merely heart-wrenching but crystalized the experience as terrific and as awe-inspiring as any apocalyptic ‘end of the world’ scenario Hollywood could concoct. Most definitely it must have seemed this way for Maria Belon and her family, come to the newly inaugurated Golden Palace Hotel for a little R&R over the Christmas holidays and looking forward to nothing more substantial than a week of lazy lounging on Khao Lak’s ivory sands.
This vacation, however, was to turn deadly for 230,000 people; a loss of human life so staggering that to discover even one survivor from this perilous afternoon seems more a miracle now than it perhaps did then. To learn of five - all in one family - is a phenomenon, and the subject of Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible (2012). Bayona tells the tale from Maria’s perspective; albeit with one minor artistic flub; the Spanish Belon family having morphed into a decidedly Caucasian/British brood headlined by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. Otherwise, The Impossible quickly acquires artistic integrity as an unrelenting portrait of heroism despite overwhelming tragedy; its triumph of the human spirit genuine and satisfying.
Bayona and his screenwriter, Sergio G. Sánchez have managed an extraordinary feat; to tell a true story in a narratively compelling way without embellishing or twisting the facts. By Maria’s own harrowing account, we experience the epic wrath of the huge black wall of sea water smashing into bungalows, counterbalanced by excruciating moments of gut-wrenching fear racing through our protagonists’ minds; the drowning sensation Maria herself has described as “like being in a spin dryer” realized for the audience in all its heart-palpating, nerve-jangling dread. The Impossible is not an easy film to watch – and not chiefly because we know the event being depicted actually happened, but rather because the performances given by Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland (cast as Maria, her husband Henry and young son, Lucas respectively) seem so ‘of the moment’ and ‘in the zone’ of the close-knit Belons suddenly torn asunder by this swirling maelstrom.
Most disaster movies brutalize the audience, placating our morbid desire for catharsis. We are able to survive fires, floods and the proverbial gnashing of teeth all from the comfort of our plush theater seats or cozily snuggled up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and favorite soft drink in hand. But The Impossible is different somehow – almost documentarian in its approach, and forcing us to live through the nightmare moment by moment. The drama yields to an even more un-quantifiable appreciation. By the end of the first reel we have completely set aside the premise that these are actors assuming just another role in their ever-expanding repertoires. Watts, McGregor and Holland manage no minor coup when they all but disappear from our collective consciousness, replaced by a haunted verisimilitude that gets under our skin and rattles a deepening trepidation with the even more daunting realization of finding loved ones still alive – if, in fact, at all – after the repercussion from those subsiding tides.
Our story begins predictably enough with the Bennett family’s arrival to the Golden Palace – a picturesque Thai resort newly opened to the public. Physician Maria Bennett (Watts), husband Henry (McGregor) and their three sons Lucas (Holland), Tomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) have been looking forward to this getaway – particularly Henry, who fears that his job at a Japanese firm is about to be terminated. Director Bayona resists the urge to simply jump right into the thick of things. Instead, he conscientious sets up the story with a few choice scenes that establish the special loving nature of this close-knit family; Henry and Maria’s devotedness to one another and Lucas’ selfishness in his inability to understand Tomas’ fear of flying: little brother – what a pain!
Bayona does an exceptional job recreating the relaxed cadence preceding the deluge. We observe the resorts’ guests partaking in a moonlight candlelit balloon launch; the sun-filled beaches a resplendent tropical paradise beckoning Henry and his sons to go snorkeling; the entire family submitting to a retirement from their worldly cares. Regrettably, this respite will be short-lived. For on the next day, as Maria prepares to curl up in her deck chair with a good book, and Henry and the boys frolic in the pool an unexpected shift in the breeze and the scattering gulls overhead mark fateful seconds of quiet repose before the indelible incubus unfurls.
Triggered by a cataclysmic earthquake in the Indian Ocean miles away, the initial tidal wave unleashes its fury; uprooting trees, tearing apart bungalows and flooding the resort with a mountainous berm of murky salt water that consumes everything and everyone in its path. Maria and Lucas are swept away. Henry is unable to get out of the pool with either Tomas or Simon, presumed to have fallen under the crushing weight of the ocean. Director Bayona does a fairly brave thing with these scenes; silencing the soundtrack repeatedly as Maria’s head periodically slips beneath the raging waters – in effect, realizing the sensation of being drowned for the audience.
Against all odds Maria and Lucas manage to reunite, perilously clinging to floating debris until at last they are propelled far enough inland where the waters have receded, leaving behind their path of unbridled destruction. Compositing CGI with full scale dump tanks and miniatures of the resort, Bayona manages to effectively recreate this incalculable annihilation while never once allowing it to anesthetize the audience in their complacency for more special effects. Maria’s leg is badly injured. Without proper medical attention she will surely die of infection.
Lucas and Maria discover a small child, Daniel (Johan Sundberg) separated from his family and trapped beneath debris. These three climb into a tree to relative safety to await rescue. A local Thai father and son (La-Orng Thongruang and Tor Klathaley) find Maria, Lucas and Daniel and drag her – literally – to a nearby makeshift hospital where, due to a mix-up Maria is labeled with another survivor’s name. Thus, after being encouraged to go and assist the others, Lucas returns to find Maria’s bed empty and told by the Red Cross Nurse (Jomjaoi Sae-Limh) that his mother has died.
We shift focus back to the waterlogged remnants of the Golden Palace where Henry, Tomas and Simon have survived. Henry entrusts seven year old Tomas with Simon’s care and sends his boys on ahead in a truck bound for the hospital while he sets out on foot to learn what has become of Maria and Lucas. Injured by falling debris, Henry is taken to an evacuation center where various survivors share their stories. At first Henry is understandably numb. But when another man, Karl (Sönke Möhring), desperate for news of what has become of his own family, willingly offers Henry a chance to call home using his cell phone to explain what has happened, Henry is overwrought with crippling anxiety and hopelessness. Enough cannot be said of Ewan McGregor’s performance in this scene; so lyrically heart-breaking - so utterly true to the moment in its frazzled unraveling of his composure.
Bayona counterbalances this absolutely tremendous moment of realization with another – more understated, but nonetheless graceful. We see Tomas, having arrived at a rest stop for the night, quietly observing the twinkling stars in the night sky as Simon sleeps by his side. A kindly old woman (Geraldine Chaplin) approaches, asking if she may sit with him for a while. To this inquiry Tomas responds as any child might. “How old are you?” to which the woman replies “Seventy-four. How old are you?” “Seven”, Tomas admits. In this single scene Bayona has captured the essence of the tragedy – impactful to both young and old, sparing no one, yet bringing everyone together.
Now, Bayona telescopes his narrative into its penultimate reunion for the Bennett family. Lucas learns that Maria is alive – having survived surgery on her chest but still very weak and facing an even more arduous operation on her leg. Through a whim of fate the rescue truck with Tomas and Simon has stopped for a moment on the outskirts of the hospital, and Henry – his own search for Maria thus far come to not - has also found his way into the wards. Maria sees Henry through the heavy gauze of her curtain but is unable to call to him. Meanwhile, Simon – needing to use the bathroom – jumps from the back of the truck to relieve himself on the side of the road. Lucas, who has glimpsed Henry leaving the ward but has now lost sight of him, instead finds Tomas and Simon. Their tearful reunion is heard by Henry who cannot believe his great good fortune. Karl instructs the driver of their truck to move on. Lucas takes Henry to Maria’s bedside and after another successful surgery on her leg the family is ushered by their insurance provider aboard an airplane bound for Singapore – their ordeal at last at an end.
The Impossible is perfect storytelling – not because it seeks to transform its narrative catastrophe into high art, but rather because it uses the artistic patina of visualized narrative fiction to humanize a story we only thought we knew from newsworthy accounts. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor give career-defining performances. The word ‘performance’ usually defines the artifice in acting. But herein I use the term merely as a reminder of how seamless both Watts and McGregor are in resurrecting that raw emotional center of the piece; undeniably the movie’s greatest strength. Tom Holland is an old soul in a boy’s body; absorbing the character of Lucas as part of his DNA and taking on more ballast than one might expect, but never in a way that seems beyond the character’s years.
Fernando Velázquez score is appropriately subdued and reverent. We get none of the deafening groundswells generally associated with this type of underscoring but rather a quiet, understated and all together effective bit or musical foreshadowing. Dídac Bono, Lek Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat and Marina Pozanco’s production design works its own minor miracle on a budget. The film’s singular flaw is Óscar Faura’s cinematography. I’ve stated before my zero tolerance threshold for shaky handheld camerawork. Faura’s is among the most equilibrium upsetting in recent years. There are other – better – ways to create visual tension. Masking your actors by constantly moving the imagery around doesn’t equate to creating visual art. It never does. It never will. Otherwise, at 114 minutes The Impossible is a succinct drama. It takes us on a terrible journey, but one that is ultimately life-affirming.
Eone and Summit Films have assumed the distribution for The Impossible in North America. Their Blu-ray delivers the hi-def goods – revealing the finer details in Óscar Faura’s copper-toned cinematography. The 1080p image is sharp without appearing to suffer from digital manipulations. The stylized contrast – boosted to bleach out whites – is well represented. The 5.1 DTS audio will give your speakers a workout, but dialogue early on seems thin and lacking in spatiality. Extras are abysmally bad: two featurettes – each under ten minutes - in which impressions made by principal cast and crew are distilled into mere snippets inserted between truncated scenes from the film. The audio commentary by Bayona, Sanchez and Maria Belon is far more astute and comprehensive at putting the pieces together for us. We also get a few scant deleted scenes and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)