You see a giant tidal wave hurtling toward you and your family one second, and the next, you’re gripping a tree, water rapidly flooding everywhere. You’re alone. A destroyed car floats by. You’re searching for some way to make it stop, and without warning, you feel a searing pain. The water seems to beat you senseless in an incoherent blur. You don’t see other people. You don’t see other bodies. You only hear the scream of your son. You have nothing but fear and uncertainty.
Uncertainty is that most important aspect of “The Impossible,” a moving, epic tearjerker about a deadly tsunami that hit Thailand in 2004. It concerns itself only with the idea of unknown consequences, the idea of failure and the pain of being unable to help more. These are the natural parts of survival. It’s not a message movie. It’s a human film.
One of the families caught up in this natural disaster are the Bennett’s, a British family from Japan on vacation in Thailand. Henry and Maria (Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts) have three boys aged 10, 7 and 5, and the five of them will spend the next few days searching for one another after this tragedy.
The oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), is split up with his mom, who is severely injured and needs her son’s help every step of the way. His struggle to lift his mother into a tree is as harrowing and intense as even the tumultuous rapids themselves.
He proves himself to be the true lead of the film. We see Lucas on his own, learning to be responsible and seeing the pain of the world around him the most broadly. Lucas takes on a very noble task of wandering the hospital trying to pair patients with family members. It’s an overwhelming task for anyone, least of all for someone his age. But he succeeds, and our hearts just seem to swell up at the sign of such human decency.
And yet what director Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”) recognizes is that this reunion, nor the reunion of his own family, is fully a victory. As their plane leaves for home, the civilization is still in ruins, and that ocean seems mighty lonely.
“The Impossible” calls itself “a beautiful mystery” in this way. It’s at times a disgusting film of people vomiting blood, screeching in agony and looking absolutely decrepit, and yet its simple acts of charity and good fortune go a long way. It finds action in its lonely chases through vast, empty landscapes and crowded, noisy areas where no one can be found. Only at the beginning does it employ the disaster movie tropes.
Part of its success stems from the absolutely stunning visual effects and lifelike makeup. Opting out of digital effects, “The Impossible” incorporated one of the largest water tanks in the world to shoot the opening disaster, and it pays off by looking leaps and bounds better than Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter.”
Whereas Watts’s role throughout the film is to lie in agonizing pain, and McGregor is reduced to a weeping wreck, “The Impossible’s” real star is Holland. He demonstrates range that allows him to recognize that he’s about to become an orphan or that he’s not yet strong enough to make it on his own. Holland is a first time screen actor, but he’s been playing the title role in “Billy Elliot” on stage in London for years.
If there’s one big gripe about “The Impossible,” it’s that the film is whitewashed. Where are all the native Thai? Bayona claims that in this particular area where the family was located, the victims were about half tourists. The non-whites we see here are typically the ones helping the whites or not getting a word in because they’re not provided subtitles. Other travelling Europeans are missing their families, and we even hear some of their stories, but never of a local. In fact, the Bennett tragedy quite literally becomes the focal point of many people’s concerns in one pivotal scene when Henry makes a quick call home to say he’s unsure where Maria and Lucas are.
Despite this, I think audiences will take away that “The Impossible” is a beautiful, inclusive film about all human suffering and survival. But from a Spanish director and shot on-location in Thailand, I just wish it was more universal.
3 ½ stars