J.A. Bayona’s film The Impossible is based on the true story of a Spanish family who survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as they were taking a Christmas vacation at a Thailand resort. We know from real life and from the film’s trailer that the whole family survives, and while separated by the disaster, eventually find their way back to each other – so giving that piece of information away in this review isn’t a spoiler, per se. And the film doesn’t hinge on that piece of information, it’s more concerned with the power of each family members’ individual wills to find each other and survive until they do. The film features some great acting performances, though its direction is sometimes a mixed bag of manipulative melodrama and suspenseful moments of dread.
Changed from a Spanish to an English family in the film, the Bennetts are a well-off family living in Japan. Henry (Ewan McGregor) is a businessman whose job is perhaps in jeopardy and his wife Maria (Naomi Watts) is a doctor who has taken some time off to raise their three sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). They try to set all family tensions aside as they take a family vacation to an exclusive resort in Thailand for Christmas. When spending some time poolside one afternoon, the tsunami suddenly strikes, leaving a severely injured Maria with Lucas, and Henry with the youngest two children. The film nearly occurs in two sections: the first of Maria and Lucas’ travails as Maria’s health starts to decline, and the second as Henry tirelessly searches for his wife and eldest son.
Separating the film into these two segments does work, as both the very talented Watts and McGregor each get their time to shine. Watts spends most of the film in excruciating agony, as her character suffers from a severe leg and chest injury when the tsunami first strikes. As evidenced by her work in Mulholland Drive, nary an actress suffers as well as Watts, and her caring mother comes off as a fully realized human being as she selflessly cares for Lucas and even encourages him to help others as her strength slips away. McGregor is effective as usual, but his character isn’t as well fleshed-out as Watts’, and his character’s story gets significantly less screen time. Nevertheless, McGregor emotes the heck out of all of his scenes, particularly in one where he calls home to England to inform his father of what has happened.
The real stand-out performance here, however, belongs to Tom Holland. His character makes a breathtaking transition from surly preteen to the caretaker and emotional rock for his mother. His performance is consistently mature, effortless and believable – he never comes off as a showy “child actor.” This film will hopefully be a star-making one for Holland, as it is nearly impossible to take your eyes off him in any of his scenes.
Bayona, who directed the horror film The Orphanage, translates his suspense skill set to the world of this film very nicely. Even when the family is withstanding some mild turbulence or enjoying their time poolside, almost every minute is layered with some underlying dread. For instance, Maria has a notebook with an errant page of paper that falls out in in the film’s beginning, which provides foreshadowing for when it falls out again right before disaster strikes.
However, Bayona does veer into schmaltzy territory way more than he should. Yes, this is a film about a family and “the impossible” feat of finding each other in absolute catastrophe, but much of the film does come off as overly manipulative. Henry keeps seeing a red ball everywhere and thinks of his children, there is an oft-repeated line of “close your eyes and think of something nice,” and the happenstance of the film’s events is painted as way too convenient and it is difficult to fathom that that is the way the events went down in real life. The execution of the film’s ending, in particular, is the biggest misfire. There are many shots of family members just missing each other on the crowded streets, and it even ends in a pseudo-freeze frame, which seems like a cop out.
The film’s special effects are also executed to an uneven effect. There are many moments, especially an early shot of the back of Maria’s leg completely ripped open and hanging off, when the realistic-looking gore is needed. For instance, Maria is strong and soldiering on despite her injury. However, there is another moment of people vomiting blood in a hospital that seems unnecessary – like something out of a horror movie. Bayona needed to curtail his horror skill set and remember that this is a suspenseful drama that doesn’t need moments of gore to work.
The Impossible is certainly watchable, but despite the very strong performances, Bayona’s direction brings forth varying levels of success in eliciting the proper sense of mood – he needed to strike a better usage of his suspense skills and make the film unfold in a more organic manner. Also, it’s probably not a good idea to see it with your mother over Christmas, however, as future guilt trips might involve a line like, “See? I would keep taking care of you, even if my leg was ripped open!”
The Upside: J.A. Bayona does a fine job of providing the right amount of dread prior to the tsunami. The performances are good all around, but young actor Tom Holland astonishes as eldest son, Lucas, in a star-making turn.
The Downside: The film does have the tendency of veering into schmaltzy territory, and execution of the film’s end leaves a lot to be desired.
On the Side: Tom Holland played the title role in Billy Elliot: The Musical on the London stage for over a year. He’s a ballet dancer, then let’s be havin’ it!