Review Date: 11-14-12
Release Date: 12-21-12
Runtime: 114 minutes
Period: 2004, contemporary
I am a pretty analytical filmgoer. I watch movies like I watch dailies. Very rarely does a film grab me and suck me in. Rarer still do I find myself with tears in my eyes, watching a movie. Well, about twelve minutes in to The Impossible, rivers of tears were rolling down my face, into my mouth, down my neck, and I ceased taking notes.
The film is about the December 26, 2004 tsunami that devastated the coastlines of Southeast Asia, and specifically in this story, Thailand. It is estimated that between 230,000 to 280,000 people perished in this disaster. It is an inconceivable number of deaths – we really can’t imagine what that looks like or feels like. A friend of mine asked me (rather rhetorically) why this movie was made. The answer – to wake people up. We live in a nice little bubble of safety, security and bourgeois rich-people problems. We have no idea what really goes on in many other parts of the world. When a tragedy of this magnitude hits, it feels so far away as to not be relevant to us. The Impossible exists to remind us that it DOES affect us, every one of us.
The film is based on the true story of the Belón family, on holiday from Spain. In the film, they are portrayed as an English-speaking family (mom, dad, and three sons) living in Japan, intending to spend their Christmas vacation at the Orchid Beach resort in Phang Na, Thailand. All is well and beautiful until the rumbling begins.
The tsunami hits the resort with incredible force. The CGI elements of this sequence are incredible. The sound is overwhelming; the force of the water, the chaos, the brutality – it’s simply unimaginable. The family is swept away, separated, but soon María (Naomi Watts) finds her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) swirling in the flotsam nearby. They cling to each other, to life, amid the floating cars, trees, bicycles, and powerful dirty brown waves.
They make it to a calmer area, and discover the extent of their injuries, which, in mom’s case, are quite severe. They hear the cries of a child, and attempt to rescue him. He’s all alone, terrified, but they take him on because it’s the right thing to do. They climb a tree and wait it out, hoping against hope for rescue at best, and for no more destructive waves, at minimum.
Eventually a couple of native men find them, and they transport María and Lucas to the local hospital – now overrun with the injured, their families, and of course, the dead. María is in bad shape, and with her leg flayed open, she is at great risk of infection, sepsis and death. María is a doctor, and she, more than anyone, knows that her condition is grim.
Meanwhile, Henry (Ewan McGregor, the dad) has miraculously survived with the two younger boys. He leaves the boys (five and seven years old) in the care of another Orchid Beach resort survivor so that he can search for María and Lucas. The boys are transported to higher ground, separated from the woman supposed to be taking care of them, and they are put onto a bus with other orphaned children, headed to who-knows-where.
Long story short, everyone is eventually reunited, though not without many, MANY frustrating near misses and almost-lost-forever moments. In the end, everyone survives, which is nothing short of a miracle.
Ultimately, this is Lucas’ story. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are excellent – their energy and emotional purpose in the film is so strong – and they never waver. They are 100% invested; there is never a false moment for either of them. However, they are smoked by Tom Holland as Lucas. This kid. Woah, guys, this kid. He carries the movie on his thin shoulders and escorts us through the tragedy, allowing us to see how he quickly morphs from spoiled boy to capable, thoughtful young man. It’s an incredibly nuanced performance, solid and completely real. It’s his movie, and he more than holds his own with these award-winning actors.
The movie works best when it is not trying. The storytelling of the tsunami itself and the aftermath – just the honest story – blew me away. When the film moved into the plot layers of “let’s reunite them, woops, not quite yet” is when it felt manipulative and somehow less effective. The simple truth is enough, in this case.
The costumes were really interesting because for the bulk of the movie, the actors wear exactly what they were wearing when the tsunami hit – swimsuits, shorts, whatever. There was a randomness to the costuming that was particularly effective. In the aftermath of the disaster, villagers provide our family with items of clothing from their own homes – a tank top for Lucas, a button-up short-sleeved shirt for María, a t-shirt for Henry.
All of the clothing was incredibly distressed, and realistically so. At one point, María’s tank top is ripped, and she doesn’t realize that her breast is exposed. To shield her son from embarrassment, she ties the hanging strap up so that she is covered. It stays that way for the rest of the film – a nice touch to show her concern for his feelings, even in the direst of times.
The color palette for the film is sun bleached, bloody, muted, muddy – it is a very nice, unobtrusive way for the story to take center stage. These subdued colors help to emphasize how easy it would be to get lost in the throngs of people trying to find each other in the chaos. It is truly a miracle that ANYONE was able to find their family members (particularly their children) in that level of confusion and bedlam. The costumes serve as a way to emphasize the anonymity that we all ultimately have – no one is different, no one is special. It’s a very ego-neutralizing thing, a disaster, and to see it portrayed through color was clever and very beautiful.
I must mention the absolutely outstanding work by the makeup department – both special effects and straight makeup were extraordinary. The underwater sequences were haunting, beautiful and terrifying. Between makeup, effects, sound, and the performances, the film definitely deserves – and should get – some attention this awards season.
The movie has its flaws, but what I take away from it is the shudderingly visceral depiction of the tsunami, the realization that this actually happened, and the empathetic terror of what it must have felt like for those who were there. At least 230,000 people perished – fathers, mothers, daughters and sons. The movie makes us aware of what it actually is to be a witness to a major disaster, and it makes us aware of the tremendous loss that occurred.
If you have children in your life, this movie will be difficult to see. It’s difficult to see, no matter what. But the element of children in this movie is absolutely heartbreaking. I left the theater wanting to immediately hug every child I saw. However, I am super sick and I didn’t want to get beaten up by random parents, so I didn’t act on it. I think that the film is definitely worth seeing, but it is somewhat hard to stomach. It has a United 93 vibe to it – painful to watch, but worthwhile nonetheless as an examination of history and as a tribute to those affected by it. Though this film has a happy ending, it is still emotionally exhausting and not for the faint of heart. Worth seeing, in any case – but bring your tissues.