Second Opinion: The Impossible

'One of the most emotionally overwhelming movies I’ve seen in a long while...'

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Okay, no seriously, how did you do that…?

I’ve been watching movies non-stop for 30 years, studying them non-stop for 20 and been on-and-off film sets for at least 10 and yet for the first time in a very, very long time I am actually astounded by the visual spectacle presented in a movie. And it’s not a Michael Bay robot cage match that has the power to make my jaw slack kneewards, it’s an emotional drama about a family rendered helpless against the awesome power of nature in its fury. This title, “The Impossible,” must have at least something to do with the special effects used to recreate the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, because otherwise it’s just a presumptuous statement about the film’s familiar but well dramatized messages about the power of humanity to overcome unreasonable odds. And that would just be overstating it a bit.

Make no mistake, The Impossible is a powerful film. I daresay it’s one of the most emotionally overwhelming movies I’ve seen in a long while now. An enormous part of that stems from the visual effects, believe it or not. I’ve heard it said that dreams about tidal waves are actually metaphors for harrowing change and unmanageable emotional turmoil, and that could be why The Impossible feels truly nightmarish. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play parents of three children. Their family is vacationing in Thailand for the holidays when the tsunami lunges onto the shore in an unstoppable torrent of water and debris, nearly destroying their bodies and pulling them out inland in an uncontrollable surge of helplessness. Watts and her eldest son, played by an impressive Tom Holland (no relation to the Fright Night director), are torn away from the rest of their loved ones, stranded asea and then again in the annihilated ruins left in its wake.

Their isolation has an apocalyptic quality superior to the usual Hollywood visions of geographic ruination, and that despair only continues once they are finally collected and deposited in the overcrowded hospital where Holland is left to his own devices, unsure of his mother’s fate and learning, slowly, the value of her ethos to help others whenever necessary. Holland becomes a tiny hero, aiding other survivors in their attempts to relocate their own families, whilst completely unsure as to whether his mother will survive the minute or even if his father or brothers survived the catastrophe at all.

The trailer for The Impossible ruins that mystery outright, and while the film is based on a true story, it seems unlikely that every audience member will know exactly what happened off the top of their heads, so I suggest you avoid them. See this movie clean and let the suspense wash over you. It will help smooth out the creases in the film’s actually rather contrived machinations that keep satisfaction out of reach long enough to achieve maximum impact, for better and worse. It’s entirely possible that, intellectually, you will be fully aware of what The Impossible is trying to do to you, and I suggest – for once – just going along with it, because these contrivances are not actually a “bad” thing, and they don’t undermine the film’s simple, harrowing and yet hopeful intentions.  Suffice it to say that the worst thing you can accurately accuse The Impossible of doing is casting extremely Caucasian actors in the roles of a real-life Spanish family, but at least they feel like genuine characters.

The Impossible will manipulate your emotions with the bluntness of a tidal wave, which is thematically accurate at least, and since this kind of heartrending exploitation is at the heart of The Impossible’s very storyline, and since director J.A. Bayona is exceptionally good at it, you may wish to forgive the artifice. It’s worth a modest intellectual compromise to just sit wondering at the majesty of the film’s visual accomplishment, and to get sucked into its gut-wrenching whirlpool of potent melodrama. It’s a little too heavy-handed to reach perfection, but The Impossible still gets close enough to make you go “wow.”

Read CraveOnline's original review of The Impossible

William Bibbiani is the editor of CraveOnline's Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.