Stars: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Oaklee Pendergast, Samuel Joslin, Johan Sundberg, Geraldine Chaplin, Marta Etura and Sönke Möhring.
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Juan Antonio Bayona’s filmic recreation of the 2004 tsunami is a viscerally torrid spectacle that captures with remarkable precision the scope, scale and force of one of nature’s most frightening displays of power. That it should be so dramatically inert makes The Impossible one of 2012’s most frustrating film-going experiences; you should feel so much of the anguish and suffering endured by the young family at the centre of the story, so universal is their pain. But you just don’t.
Why you don’t is something your critic struggled with as the third act of Sergio G. Sánchez’s maudlin screenplay played out (and for several hours post-viewing). This disaster was human tragedy on a biblical scale, but you would never know that from the film. Occasionally, bodies wrapped in makeshift shrouds are glimpsed or silhouettes of corpses floating in the cloudy mass of seawater that surged inland are captured; hospital scenes are crowded but the patients are blurry background extras. Bayona’s film is not about a nation’s suffering.
It is based on the true story of one well-to-do young Spanish family (Anglicised here) who travelled to a Thai resort to spend what would be a fateful Christmas holiday. Dad Henry (Ewan McGregor) and mum Maria (Naomi Watts) oversee a loving clan of three conflict-free boys under 15 (the script’s first nod to non-realism). They are all relaxing by the resort pool when the worst tidal surge in modern history strikes; it is an extraordinarily impactful take on real-life events with effects work and live-action/CGI integration utterly seamless.
The family unit is fractured, the key thematic element that perhaps explains Bayona’s involvement in the project; he directed the arthouse horror hit The Orphanage. For close to an hour we follow the plight of Maria and eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland), who barely survive the film’s most terrifying re-enactment of the tsunami’s force before finding sanctuary, first in the arms of the locals then in a crowded hospital ward. Then, the film abruptly shifts focus back to Henry, staggering around the remains of the hotel, and the journey he undertakes to reunite his family.
Watts, who spends much of the film bruised, bloodied and in a state of prone near-unconsciousness, has some terrific scenes with Holland, who emerges as the films standout star. Exhibiting remarkable resilience after his young life is inverted, Holland’s resourceful, soulful performance recalls the young Christian Bale in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun. McGregor is less convincing, his father act reduced to hopping rides from survivor-camp to survivor-camp yelling his family’s names; the two youngest boys, Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin), are cutesy moppets of no dramatic consequence.
Sánchez’s decision to focus on the family of five was risky. No single experience was greater than the immensity of the disaster; one unavoidably wonders throughout the entire film, “What happened to that villager’s home?” or “Where is that doctor’s family?” or “Whose son is that?” The same nagging sense that cinema failed to capture the inherent vastness of despair also befell Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre, even though he tried to circumvent it by focussing on those heroic icons, the firemen, who lost their lives that day.
Bayonas was no doubt aiming for tragic, romantic grandeur, the likes of which James Cameron captured in his forbidden-love take on the Titanic disaster. But coming 100 years later, with that distant event evoking its own mythical sweep, Cameron could lay on the movie-star cheese with little fear of retribution. The Impossible adopts similar tactics, asking us to believe that pretty film stars and their disaster movie plight captures what it was like during and after that horrible event. But the moment is too fresh in our minds.