There’s a line spoken to a young boy in the middle of Juan Antonio Bayona’s film The Impossible that brings a lot of gravity to the events he and his family are currently experiencing. It really captures the theme of the story and comes in a scene where one of Ewan McGregor’s sons talks to a woman as they discuss the stars in the nighttime sky. He’s fond of star gazing (as evidenced by the gift of a new telescope he received for Christmas at the beginning of the film) and in their conversation the woman tells him that some of the stars he’s looking at have been dead for a long time. “How do you know which ones are alive and which ones are dead?” he asks. “Well that’s impossible to know” she responds as they continue staring at the heavens. So like looking for his missing family members, ones he neither knows are alive are dead, he too faces an impossible task. It’s that small bit of relevance that not only opens the young boy’s mind to the real weight of the events that have befallen his family but attempts to bring the audience a little closer to this foreign story.
The Impossible is a film, like few other disaster films are able to accomplish, that shows people who are at their lowest rebounding to survive one of the toughest and most will-destroying catastrophes of our time. Led by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, this story of a vacationing family is just one of many tales of the survivors who struggled through the aftermath of tsunami that hit southeast Asia in late December 2004. Before you can get over the jet lag, director Juan Antonio Bayona’s film throws us, just as unexpectedly as the family and people in the story, into the mayhem. In an instant, everything that was calm and serene is either unbelievably displaced, severely damaged or gone forever. There’s lots of crying and people, those lucky enough to survive, who are just devastated by the freak event and are now faced with seeking medical attention and/or their loved ones. Yet just because they are able to get to the hospital there’s no guarantee they’ll get it in time and the odds of finding family members are even less than that.
McGregor and the two youngest sons are split from Watts and the eldest son (played by Tom Holland) and the film takes us through this ordeal from both of the parents’ perspectives. Although since Watts is hurt and near death it is Holland who keeps them both safe as they traverse high marsh-like waters and the overrun hospital. McGregor and Watts are equally fantastic but Holland deserves much recognition. He delivers a captivating breakout performance playing young Lucas and shows capability in each of the film’s more emotionally demanding sequences. But he also shows an incredibly tender side as he, once his mother is being looked after, tries to help those in need at the understaffed hospital.
Watts has been impressing people with the gravity and depth of her characters and portrayals for years, like the audition scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., the emotionally wrought wife in 21 Grams, even her few scenes in David O. Russell’s I Hear Huckabees showed her considerable ranges. Here she gives it her all, and is so effortlessly intense that you’d think you were watching these events real time. The drama is so emotionally weighty it bonds each scene together tightly. The film follows a small number of people, not just because their tale is unbelievable but also because it’s kind of tough to imagine that the tsunami killed a quarter of a million people across 14 different countries. It’s not easy to quantify that kind of loss, but it is easy to see the effect is has on people and just how small we really are.
McGregor similarly brings his fine tuned skill to this tragically emotional role. Forget Star Wars and The Island (well, actually quite good in that), it’s films like this that make you realize what a great actor he is. For the first half of the story he, as you would imagine, gives an emotional turn but it’s kind of expected. Yet there’s a sequence where he (sitting among others struggling in their search to find missing family members) shines with unbridled brilliance. It’s a short scene where he is able to call his family on another survivor’s cell phone that literally rips your heart out and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone watching this with you to have a dry eye. It’s so good, personal and affecting that it transcends written or source material and becomes an entirely visceral and uniquely empathetic performance. As actors have earned an Oscar for far less, McGregor should expect a nod for that one scene alone.
Like any intimate true story, and better one that depicts great heartache and tragedy, there’s a beginning, end and basic facts to the “true” events that must remain. Yet there’s an indiscernible level of conceit that seams together all the events and fleshes out this story. The amount of liberties taken to make the story this cinematically captivating (Apollo 13 and The Social Network come to mind) are irrelevant as it is the message and themes that stand out the most. Make no mistake, even if you know the story or can anticipate that the family survives (there wouldn’t be much of a story if they hadn’t… and further why call it The Impossible if they didn’t all miraculously make it out of their ordeal), there’s nothing that will prepare you for the journey you’ll join them on.
What really is a spectacle to behold among the truly tragic story and the superb acting are the visuals. Not to take away from the events on screen but there’s a point where everyone in the audience will probably wonder just how Juan Antonio Bayona replicated and staged such a convincing and epic looking disaster. Unless the hotel and surrounding areas in the story have been left alone since the actual tsunami hit 8 years ago, and was cleaned up and restored during the production, there just seems like no other way Bayona could have accomplished this much wide spread devastation (if someone does know we’d love to find out). Like an uncredited but immensely important supporting character the location/set design provided the perfect backdrop to allow the actors to reach their full potential and deliver such amazing and standout performances.
Juan Antonio Bayona’s film, again retelling the unbelievable true story of just one family who survived the tsunami that hit southeast Asia the day after Christmas 2004, is one of the most exhaustive and nerve-racking survival stories to come along in a long time. And while there were so many more people than the five person family and the scores of people shown in the hospitals affected by that natural disaster in 2004, it’s not just improbable that anyone survived that 90 wall of Indian Ocean water. It, like knowing the difference between living and dead stars in space, is almost impossible. But in the case of this one extraordinarily lucky family (and others who the film doesn’t acknowledge) rising up from such a catastrophic event takes a lot of strength, hope, love and courage, but it’s not impossible.