‘The Impossible’ an intense drama of tsunami survival
If you’ve ever had a hankering to find out what it’s like to be swept up in a tsunami—without, you know, the life-threatening peril—look no further than The Impossible. Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona’s intense drama is based on a true story of survival in the wake of the ferocious Asian Pacific tsunami of December 2004; it plunges the viewer smack into the middle of utter chaos when a rogue wall of water rises up and devastates everything in its path for miles around in a matter of minutes.
Bayona made the stylish and brilliantly creepy Gothic thriller The Orphanage (El Orfanato) a few years back, and he knows a little something about building and sustaining suspense. But while that film was all about the dread of the unknown, this one is fueled entirely on the adrenalin rush of coping with the unthinkable. There’s no time to dread anything here; the suddenness of the tsunami as it pounds a completely unprepared human world is its most terrifying aspect.
Bayona, working again with Orphanage scriptwriter Sergio G. Sanchez, takes as his inspiration the true story of the Belón family, a Spanish couple and their three young sons who were vacationing on the coast of Thailand when the tsunami struck. In the film, the family is British. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts star as Henry and Maria; he’s a young entrepreneur and she’s a trained medical doctor who’s given up her practice to raise their family. Adolescent son Lucas (Tom Holland) is their eldest. Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and little Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) are his younger brothers.
On Christmas Eve, the family arrives to spend the holidays at a beachfront resort in Kao Lek, Thailand. They spend an enchanted couple of days on the beach, round the pool and in the dining room with the rest of the fair-skinned, international guests. (In this respect, it makes perfect sense that the family are Brits; most of Thailand’s winter guests are Northern Europeans, especially Swedes.) But on the morning after Christmas, disaster strikes; the tourists lounging around poolside have about five seconds to sense a disturbance in the force before a gigantic wall of water explodes in over the compound wall, turning everything in its path into a raging river.
Bayona and cinematographer Óscar Faura do a remarkable job filming this event, measuring it out in breathtaking spurts. As soon as the water breaches the treeline and the wall, and we register the shock on the tourists’ faces, the screen goes black. For one minute, the only sensation is a low, mottled, almost subliminal roar of sheer force. The next thing we see is Maria above the surface (barely), wrapped around a tree trunk, screaming for her life in the midst of a churning, muddy apocalypse of water—driving trees, vehicles, and building fragments before it.
Later, Bayona revisits the sequence from a different perspective; we see Maria under water, flung about like a rag doll into other bodies and flesh-tearing debris. Both versions are masterful replications of terror and sheer disorientation. That Maria somehow manages to hook onto stray son Lucas in the flood tide, and that, in spite of her grievous injuries, they goad each other into survival, is miraculous. As the scene gradually expands to include devastated villages, refugee camps, and bug-infested makeshift hospitals, we also follow Henry’s journey, struggling to keep his two littlest boys safe while navigating the harrowing milieu of loss and displacement searching for the rest of his family.
Watts (in an incredibly physical performance) and McGregor are deeply affecting, and young Holland is terrific as resourceful Lucas. No explicit mention is made of the cause of the tsunami, but all but the most ignorant climate change deniers understand that the frequency of these events lately (including Hurricane Sandy), is no coincidence. The subtext is clear: Nature is a force of irrational, unpredictable, and immense power. We disrespect her gifts and compromise her cycles and laws at our peril. The tsunami of 2004 was one natural response to the changing rules imposed by humankind. Sadly, it was and will not be the last.
*** (out of four)
With Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland. Written by Sergio G. Sanchez. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. A Summit Entertainment release. Rated PG-13. 114 minutes.