The Impossible had a daunting task in front of them to tackle: they had to shoot a film based on a hugely tragic natural disaster and not make it feel exploitive. This film toed the line dangerously close, and it was the performances and the overwhelming power of the story itself that saved it from being a complete foul hit.
The storyline is this: A British family on vacation in Thailand for the holidays are caught in what is considered the worst natural catastrophe. We see moments of serenity with “I love you”s passing between the parents, Henry (Ewan McGregor) plays with his three sons in the pool, the whole family swims in a tropical ocean. The filmmakers chose to show the beauty of the area before they utterly destroyed it in one the most intense and suffocating fifteen minutes in film this year.
Once the wave hits and the sound disappears as Maria, played by the wonderful Naomi Watts, scrambles to stay afloat as her son Lucas, played by Tom Holland in what is a true breakout performance, screams for her. They’re both beaten and battered as wave after wave topples them over. We see screaming individuals clinging from trees, inhabited cars being swallowed by the ocean, we see Maria be torn at by the debris that got swept along with her and her injuries in graphic detail. It’s a harrowing film experience because there is no means of escapism; with so many other films that tackle violent themes and tough subject matter, an audience member can detach themselves from the film, tell themselves that it isn’t real. For The Impossible that wasn’t the case because instead it only reopened the memories of the images of the disaster, the stories and the videos of the after effects of the tsunami that left destruction in its wake. Nearing two hours in length, this film had one holding their breath in anxiety and simply waiting for the next beating that the family would take.
Most of the film is split in two: we have Maria and Lucas in an overcrowded hospital with the former desperately trying to stay alive and Henry and the two youngest songs trying to find them. But in truth, it was Maria and Lucas’s story. They shared the most poignant scenes, the most overtly oppressive scenes, and Watts and Holland give nuanced and heartbreaking performances.
However, it’s the overt oppressive atmosphere of the film that shines a light on one of the most glaring failures of the film: the script. The script is at moments saccharine, plays to the tropes of Hollywood, and often times lazy. With the amount of talent they achieved with their casts, they deserved a script that showed rather than told the emotions of the characters. Screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez rather than exploring a more innovative and expressive way of telling María Belón’s story instead settled for the bare minimum: here is a family who loves each other, who are henceforth separated and then due to the love and bond of families are able to reunite. It’s sappy and with a subject matter of such gravity, you’d imagine it would be tackled with more delicacy and care.
That and more representation of the Thai society would have bettered the film. The latter has been discussed already, and my sentiments lie with the accuser: yes, this is the tale of one family, but it’s also a tale about a catastrophe that affected many more than just them. The film needed more Thai characters to bring a sense of reality to the film, and it missed out.
The failure of the film isn’t that it’s bad, but that it had so many missed opportunities. It’s an okay film that could have been great with a more diverse cast and a more capable screenwriter.
McGregor, Watts and Holland were all wonderful, and the latter is one to look for, as he hopefully continues his acting career.
The film wasn’t bad, but I doubt I’ll be seeing it again. It’s emotionally exhausting and manipulative and if you’re like me, leaves you wondering about all of the other lives lost during that time. Maybe that’s a good thing, but it left me in need of a feel-good film stat.
The Impossible is now playing in theaters.