Sometimes fiction is stranger than truth. That’s exactly what I thought when I first saw the trailer to THE IMPOSSIBLE. Based on the true survival story of a family horrifically separated by the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which took over 230,000 lives, the preview offered up beautiful images yet seemingly spoiled the entire plotline. I had a sinking “Is that all there is?” feeling.
My instincts were only half-correct, because while this is a slight, virtually suspense-free tale, THE IMPOSSIBLE remains one of the most emotionally-overpowering, visceral films of the year. Director Juan Antonio Bayona and Writer Sergio Sanchez know exactly how to jangle the nerves, starting out with a plane ride into Thailand, as the dynamics of our main family are quickly established. Bayona knows how to turn mild turbulence into a white knuckle affair. It doesn’t hurt that the sound design, brilliantly realized by Oriol Tarrago and his team, contributes greatly to the feeling of discomfort and continues as such throughout the entire film. In quick, almost elliptical takes, the family settles into their oceanside resort to enjoy the holiday. A stunning shot of them launching paper lanterns is captured beautifully by Cinematographer Oscar Faura, whose first name is an excellent predictor of where his career is headed.
Of course, nothing in this brief prelude will prepare you for the tsunami sequence itself. While Clint Eastwood did a respectable job of showing it in the otherwise execrable THE HEREAFTER, in this film, almost all of your senses are engaged. When the news of the disaster first hit, I naively wondered why people couldn’t simply hold their breath and ride the wave. THE IMPOSSIBLE answers my stupid question in a scene that shows the speed, the debris, the injuries, chaos and impact of the moment. Particularly unnerving are the underwater shots of our main characters getting tossed around mercilessly.
The three main cast members (Naomi Watt, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland) deliver stunning performances. I felt every bump, bruise and break and the sudden outburst of emotional from McGregor during his big scene did bring this stoic jerk to tears. In fact, it’s virtually impossible not to feel this film. Watts conveys the suffering and fatigue so well in what amounts to an almost silent yet perfect performance. Newcomer Tom Holland, as their eldest son, has to literally carry this entire film, and he’s fantastic. All of the urgency of the moment, as he helps his injured mother and frantically races around trying to locate his family, comes across so vividly, that at times, it’s unbearable.
While sound, image (including spot-on Production Design by the very talented Eugenio Caballero and seamless Visual Effects work from Felix Berges and co.), direction and performance all come together to truly bring this disaster to life, the story simply does not have enough twists and turns to merit this treatment. Moreover, the real family is Spanish, yet this Spanish team of filmmakers chose to turn them into an English clan. Perhaps this was a crass studio decision to sell more tickets, but my first thought was, “So you’re telling me that Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz were too busy polishing their Oscars?”, because last time I checked, those two international stars can put butt in seats too. Regardless, THE IMPOSSIBLE grabs you, shakes you around, reduces you to a puddle of tears, and dumps you bruised and battered on the other side, and it does so with such skill, that the skimpy story is somewhat forgivable.
Glenn Gaylord is an award-winning Writer/Director/Producer and graduate of the UCLA School of Film and Television.