I really hate important movies, and when you start out telling a story about a recent real life disaster, you are in dangerous territory for being important. However, the other side of my vast oversimplification of year-end awards-consideration movies is that they can totally elevate the subject to a universal experience. The Impossible gets there, though it may only be my second favorite survival movie of AFI Fest.
Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) are on vacation in Thailand when the 2004 tsunami hits. Maria and Lucas survive the aftermath while trying to get help for her injuries. Possible spoiler, but you can look this up about the true story, Henry, Simon and Thomas are also alive looking for Maria and Lucas.
What really elevates The Impossible above any other disaster movie or true-life survival story is how brutally it portrays the storm and its aftermath. I really don’t want to spoil the specifics, because the details of Maria’s injuries are the sorts that are never addressed in fake disaster movies. These aren’t gimmicks like Twister and the cow. These are important details. Some of this really makes you want to look away, unless you’re me and then I congratulate the filmmakers for f’ing Naomi Watts up so badly.
The storm sequence is a magnificent spectacle. The water is just vicious and brutal and director J.A. Bayona creates a sense of the unknown. Characters will hit a power pole out of nowhere, and Bayona orchestrated it in a way where the audience had no chance to anticipate it, because the characters didn’t. People get pulled under the water and beaten about and what really sells it are the background characters hanging on to survive, even when you’re focused on Maria and Lucas.
The rescue is even more painful than the storm. Trekking through the debris only exacerbates injuries. Bayona again creates some epic scope in the recovery, with vast encampments of shelter and hospital facilities populated with choreographed people so it feels alive. In the recovery, The Impossible creates the sense of how people help each other in a crisis. After a tsunami, no one’s worried about the 1% and the 99. You love anyone else who survived. No one’s a stoic hero either. They’re a blubbering mess, as they would be and that shows the real strength to push on.
I really wish director Bayona hadn’t chosen to shoot the movie with handheld cameras. I can’t really argue against it when he’s just going to say in the real tsunami you couldn’t see everything clearly, but it just reminds me we’re watching a modern movie where the frame constantly bobs around. There are some graceful swooping shots over the flood, but mostly it just shakes on a closeup of Watts’ eyes.
The Impossible chose the right approach to telling a socially significant story to a positive end. It pays respect to those who weren’t as fortunate to survive the tsunami, but it emphasizes the spirit of perseverance and survival rather than dwelling on tragedy. Fine, I can’t resist saying it. The Impossible achieved the impossible of making an important movie that I can get behind.
Photo Credit: Jose Haro/Summit Entertainment