Turning the devastating tragedy of the Tsunami that struck Southeast Asia the day after Christmas in 2004 into "entertainment" might seem like an affront to those affected by the tragedy. And that might be true. But as much as the new film "The Impossible" is a Hollywood production, it never forgets to remind you how horrific the events really were without making it a glossy manipulation picture.
Neither a political film nor an exploitation film, Juan Antonio Bayona's ("The Orphanage") sometimes difficult to watch true story of one family's survival is inspiring, disturbing, and emotionally exhausting. Hopefully that won't sway moviegoers, however, because what is put on screen is pretty remarkable.
The story is simple: Ewan MacGregor and Naomi Watts star as the parents of three young boys who go on Christmas holiday, but are torn apart when the legendary Tsunami hits their Thailand resort. Mom Maria and eldest son Lucas (the amazing Tom Holland) suffer the flood and aftermath together, while Dad Henry and sons Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) search for them.
The film’s opening is a bit overdone, with some over-amplified sound effects that seem unnecessary (trust me, the Tsunami is menacing enough), but settles down as it observes the central family innocently spending a Christmas Eve and Christmas Day together. Lucas is the typical apathetic and growly teenager, while the younger sons are just your average kids with no cares in the world. Mom and Dad are having their own issues with work and living situations, which threaten to cause a rift in their marriage. But all of this becomes inconsequential when, while playing at the hotel pool the day after Christmas, the Tsunami hits without warning.
For the next thirty minutes we watch as Maria and Lucas fight to survive the waves and debris by an unsympathetic force of nature. In fact, most of the film plays out with how these two manage the initial tragedy and then go about getting the medical help Maria needs once they make it to dry land. Halfway through the film, we move over to Henry who, along with his two kids, searches for Maria and Lucas. Throughout, the family will learn to brush past the things in their lives that seem insignificant and learn to embrace the things they love.
The plot is really that simple. We are watching a family endure, love, and grow. No more, no less. But how it plays out is what is so compelling about the film, and the performances by Watts and Holland are nothing less than remarkable.
Watts definitely has the most physically challenging role here, whether it involves being catapulted through raging waters, climbing trees with a busted leg, or dealing with debilitating illnesses. She does this while projecting an emotional range that runs such a gamut: you wonder how she survived the day-to-day filming. Holland, on the other hand, goes through much of the same physical challenges, while also portraying a boy becoming a man. His is an astounding performance for someone so young and recalls a young Christian Bale from "Empire of the Sun." Both Watts and Holland give Oscar-worthy performances.
The other star of the film is the special effects and sound team who create a Tsunami that is so realistic (especially right after it hits) that I’m still stunned as to how they did it. Never once did I not believe that Maria and Lucas were really in the unforgiving waters of the Tsunami. And this is the first film that really gets the thrashing and twisting of being thrown around underwater right. These sequences are so frightening that they’re almost unbearable. You truly feel like you are in the water with them and your mind inevitably races with questions about what you would do if you were in the same situation. The sound that accompanies these scenes is top-notch and while there are a few moments where the music and effects reach an unnecessary level, how it all combines with the visual imagery is spectacular.
The script by Sergio G. Sanchez is the simplest of stories and if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve pretty much seen the outcome, but it is a powerful nonetheless. The requisite tears will be shed, but they aren’t manipulated out of you. You know you’re going to cry, but they’re necessary to release the suspense you’ve put yourself through. Does that make it a film to avoid? No. It’s an important film, only if to remind you that life can change on a dime. And when that change happens - what is really important in it. Only in the face of something so terrifying, do we sometimes understand what those things are.