The Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 is one of those moments in human history which lends itself to cinematic portrayal but whose horrors seem unfathomable, lest they minimize the trauma, destruction, and death that literally shook the earth. Like September 11th, while there have been some programming around the tsunami and the disaster played a part in other projects, it stills seems too soon, too raw, to make a film dramatizing it. The Impossible, based on the true story of a vacationing family that survived the tsunami, to its credit, handles the material respectfully, making the shock palpable and the circumstances that both separate and reunite the family logical.
In the only major change to the actual story, the nationality of the family was changed from the original Spaniard family to a British one. Maria (Niomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) have taken time for a Christmas holiday in Thailand. With them are their three sons, Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and the oldest, Lucas (Tom Holland). Lucas isn't the most loving of fellows, particularly with his little brothers, but on the whole they are a solid, loving family.
All is going well until that fateful December 26, 2004. Everyone is relaxing at the pool in their resort when the waters come barrelling through. A quick fade to black before we come to a terrified Maria, clinging to a tree and calling desperately for her husband and children. Soon, a ray of hope: Lucas is swimming with the onrushing tide when they spot each other, and Maria tries desperate to catch and catch up with her equally terrified son. Maria has had many physical injuries while Lucas on the whole has come out much better. Eventually they manage to enter some dry land, where Maria's leg injury begin to plague them. In the midst of all this, as they start accepting that perhaps Henry and the other boys might be dead, they come across a lost infant named Daniel. Despite Lucas' initial reluctance they rescue him and soon are rescued themselves, where Maria fights to stay alive and Lucas fights to stay relevant and sane amid the chaos.
We then leave them to find Henry back at the resort's wreckage. He too managed to survive, as did Simon and Thomas (who we are told also hung on to trees). Henry is torn, but decides that he needs to find Lucas and Maria, sending his two boys to safety in the mountains. Henry is soon joined by another man desperate to find his own wife and children.
Lucas had been separated from his mother in the confusion of the hospital, but eventually they are reunited. Maria's leg needs to be operated on, which leaves Lucas terrified he will lose the only family he believes still exists. Then, through a strange series of turns, truly wonderful things happen to our family. Henry arrives at that hospital in hopes of finding his wife and son. Lucas recognizes his father's walk and swimming trunks. In his calls to his father, Lucas is unaware that his two brothers, who were being sent away, are at the hospital too. Simon's need to relieve himself keeps them there longer than they'd planned. The brothers recognize Lucas' voice and are reunited. Henry somehow spots his sons and is reunited with Lucas, who then brings his father and siblings to his mother.
While her surgery has success, they have to be taken to Singapore, and The Impossible ends with our family, still wearing what they've had on for at least two or three days, flying out to safety over the same treacherous waters.
The Impossible boasts some of the best performances seen this year, certainly in Naomi Watts' case. She is an actress who is almost always as good as her material: when it's bad (as in Dream House), she is bad. When it's good (as in The Impossible), she is very good indeed. Watts' Maria is a frightened woman who knows she has to somehow will herself to keep going. The cross between her physical deterioration, emotional exhaustion, and her need to push through shows the strength behind someone so beaten up.
Ewan McGregor remains one of my favorite actors, and in The Impossible he simply does not disappoint. His Henry is equally a survivor who won't give up searching for his family, but beneath his determination he too is wrecked. The scene where he manages to call home only to break down is downright heartbreaking, leaving one devastated. He gains some control of himself and makes a second call where he tells the voice at the other end he will keep searching.
I'd argue that most of The Impossible is seen through his eyes, and Holland's performance is simply one of gentle power. He doesn't have a "big" scene where he is allowed to vent his fury to the heavens. Sometimes he looks frightened and/or overwhelmed with all the horror he has to witness and endure. Still, Holland creates that emotional bond with the audience. If Tom Holland isn't nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar it will be a mild disappointment, mild only in that given his talent he should eventually win one for another film should his acting remain at this level.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona not only got a great cast to do some marvelous work (even a wonderful cameo by Geraldine Chaplin that seemed both soothing and added a comforting philosophy to the younger boys' view of what they've lived through), but he also did something rare in modern filmmaking: he let the visual effects serve the story. The actual tsunami sequence is terrifying, and at a crucial point near the end of The Impossible we go back to it, reliving the horror of that day as close as most of us will ever come across something so traumatic.
In these scenes, the impact both physical and emotional of the tsunami is felt by all the characters. There is never an effort to downplay the sheer horror of that day (although no film, no matter how good or strong, will ever really capture the immensity of that cataclysmic event).
Sergio G. Sanchez's screenplay never plays for emotion, instead allowing things to flow naturally. It is basically divided between three acts: Maria and Lucas' story, Henry's story, and the eventual coming together of both. In many films, the obligatory 'people keep missing each other' sequence would appear almost too forced to be believed, but in The Impossible we see that for most of that sequence, it's really Lucas catching a glimpse of someone who could be his father and desperately trying to find him. It also played well that his brothers, not Lucas, spotted the latter first.
I won't argue against Fernando Velasquez's score, even though at times it might have been a bit overdramatic, trying to push the emotions when it didn't need all that. Sometimes it served the movie well, and sometimes it felt a touch too much. I wouldn't qualify it as a flaw but at times a little less is more.
The Impossible may have a less-than-clear title, but it is a strong tale of survival in the middle of almost unspeakable devastation, with some of the best performances by the leads and a star-making turn by Tom Holland (someone to watch for).