Mark Reviews Movies

The Impossible


4 Stars (out of 4)

Director: J.A. Bayona

Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom  Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity)

Running Time: 1:54

Release Date: 12/21/12 (limited)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 20, 2012

There is a reason we need and seem to find the bright spots in even the most despairing of stories; it is simply that we may remain sane in the face of senseless tragedy. The Impossible tells a relatively hopeful story of the tsunami of December 26, 2004, that ravaged areas of southern Asia. Over 200,000 people died and over a million and a half were displaced as a result of a series of massive ocean waves that, in some instances, were over five times taller than the size of an average person.

The film does not shy away from that story of utter devastation, but the focus is on a family of tourists facing seemingly insurmountable odds to reunite. First, though, they must survive.

Director J.A. Bayona's harrowing and emotionally stirring film tells a seemingly unlikely but still true account of a family spending their holiday vacation at a resort in the Khao Lak region of Thailand when the tsunami strikes. They are just one group of people in the area, including locals and visitors who speak a range of languages and with a multitude of accents. While it might seem odd to focus a story of such regional significance on people who do not live in said region, the effect is one of the universality of suffering. In a disaster, the nationality on one's passport does not matter.

The same, though, goes for the common kindness and decency the majority of human beings share when such unthinkable events occur, and it is from that sense of basic humanity when confronted with adversity—above even the stunning and dreadful scenes of the natural disaster itself and its aftermath—that the film derives its power. It is one thing to show the palpable misery in this horrifying scenario, but that Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez manage to elicit a sensation as overwhelming as faith in humanity in simple gestures, such as the offering of a cell phone or a woman holding hands with a young boy who is not her son, is something else entirely—something remarkable.

On Christmas Eve in 2004, a family of five is about to land in Thailand (The family of the true-life story hailed from Spain; the film turns them into British expatriates). They are Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). Both parents are anxious about things they cannot control: Henry stews over the possibility that he forgot to set the alarm at their house in Japan, while Maria clutches the armrests of her seat as the plane encounters some minor turbulence. They have time to worry about these things; it's one of the many luxuries and privileges they take for granted—ones they will not have in two days' time.

The opening scenes are idyllic, with the resort's guests sending paper lanterns into the night sky and the family recording their relaxed Christmas celebration. Fernando Velázquez' score (which does become a bit too on-the-nose much later in the film, though not to a distracting degree and earned) is not joyful but mourning. Even before all of this, Bayona has set a tone of apprehension within the first moments of the film, as a black screen holds over the sounds of faraway rushing water and something like the intense groaning of a foundation about to break, and with an image from the sea looking toward the beach—impassive but loaded with dread (It reminds us of a subjective shot from the killer's point of view in a horror movie).

The tsunami hits in the mid-morning when the family is at the pool. A strong breeze blows a page from Maria's book into a window.  Birds begin to fly inland. A low, gradual rumbling begins to shake the ground. The first glimpse is terrifying, with trees knocked down before the waves splash into the air from their impact on the surroundings. Maria, pinned against the glass, can only close her eyes.

The sequence that follows is a virtuoso exercise in controlled chaos. It starts from Maria's viewpoint—nothing but a black screen, the muffled sounds of water surrounding us, and flashes of light. As she and we become adjusted to her situation, Bayona and cinematographer Óscar Faura maintain three perspectives: an occasional overhead shot to take in the vast ruin and tracking shots of Maria and Lucas that follow them as they drift through the violent current, both above- and underwater. Every abrupt impact with debris is palpable; every flash of some horror in the background—a dead body or the living crying out in agony—stings (The camera breaks its routine to follow a van, out of which Lucas hears a baby crying; as a second unstoppable surge of water approaches it, the camera seems to recoil in terror to the overhead shot).

Eventually, Maria and Lucas are safe. The film follows them to a local hospital, where Maria, herself a doctor and aware of how grave her situation could turn, waits for medical attention for a wounded leg and Lucas—upon his mother's instruction to do "anything" for the other people there—begins to try to reunite separated families (After some confusion, he winds up in a makeshift tent, where temporarily or permanently orphaned children wait in limbo). The film reunites us with Henry, who must make an unbearable decision between the known and the unknown, and the path of the rest of the story seems set in stone.

It's what Bayona and Sánchez do once the course is set that begins the process of subverting the emotional progression of the story. As Henry searches, he encounters reminders of others who will, in the end, be less fortunate than himself. A man (Sönke Möhring) who lost his family eventually accompanies Henry. At a key moment, Bayona cuts back to him; the scene he is witnessing serving as a reminder for what he's lost. It forces us to consider him and how many like him were not as lucky as the family we've been following. As things settle, the camera stays back from the central subject, occupying the foreground with people checking names of the dead and body bags on the ground.

The dichotomy of thought—a sort of intentional cognitive dissonance—that Bayona creates with the juxtaposition of the two stories—the family's and those in the background—puts the entirety of this story in the proper context. The end focuses as much on what has been left behind as the survivors (Watts' final look perfectly conveys the conflict)—the name of an unknown woman written on an arm, a sticker that recalls parentless children, and an innocent note that became a haunting farewell. The central story of The Impossible may help us stay sane, but the film acknowledges it could never make sense of anything so horrible.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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