September 9, 2012 (Toronto International Film Festival)
January 4, 2013 (United States)
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona
Written by Sergio G. Sanchez
Every so often there's a film I feel I can recommend to any and everyone. "The Impossible" is one of those films. Its eminence is a finely crafted testament of one family's incredible experience.
I do lament the film-going life myself and others could have without knowing as much as we do about films before seeing them. Synopses, previews, reviews (like this one!) and trailers do so much to tell/show what you can expect. All the same, it's the opening title cards to "The Impossible" relate that what follows is a true story about a one family during the 2004 India Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
The film begins as the Belon family (father, mother and their three boys) fly to a paradisiacal resort in Thailand to spend their Christmas vacation. We watch as this perfect imperfect family spends the beginning of their covetable trip, though we know all too well that disaster is lurking in the deep. On December 26th one of the largest recorded earthquakes, and consequential tsunamis, on record ravages the coast, the resort and its guests with it.
I am reminded of the tsunami scene from Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" (the most memorable part about that film). Surely the filmmakers watched and studied that remarkable sequence as it similar in many ways while significantly improving upon it. Seeing either "Hereafter" or "The Impossible" on any screen smaller than the side of a UHAUL would be to do the film a disservice (I like to think that about all films, but we know some are surely more cinematic than others). Watching it on a home television set, computer screen or (God forbid) an iOS device will steal nearly all impact. Disaster in movies is a strange concept. We sit comfortably while watching all hell break loose onscreen and claim countless lives. It's a vicarious experience, one where you can get a feel of something you would not want to experience (or at least a team of artists version of it) while being awed at the technical achievement it was to put onscreen in the first (and last) place. "Prometheus," "Life of Pi," and now "The Impossible" should be in the discussion of the very best visual effects you'll see in 2012's films.
For no apparent reason the Belon family, who were in reality Spanish, were changed to the British family herein; perhaps to appeal to Western audiences? The former would have made much more sense as the film is actually a product of Spain with a Spanish director and writer. This is one of several strange and possibly offensive racial changes we've seen in movies as of late. This detail should have no affect on how I feel about the film itself, but I found it unexplainable. As great as Naomi Watts is here I think the film would have resonated all the more (thus, benefitted all the more) if the parents were played by everyday-level unknowns. Then again, there's no telling you'd get as solid work as you would from them. Watts is the matriarch who first concerned for the welfare of her young ones while being significantly handicapped by her own physical trauma. This is the first time we've seen Tom Holland onscreen; he plays Lucas, the oldest of the Belon sons. He has as much screen time if not more than the two listed stars (Watts and Ewan McGregor). It's probably the best English speaking performance of a young man I've seen since Hunter McCracken in "The Tree of Life."
"The Impossible" feels like a competent vision from beginning to end. The story is simple and relies more on the impressive visuals than dialogue. I would image words fall short during such a time anyway. "True stories" can become maudlin and it is not easy to be sentimental without stepping too far. A scene where a character calls home is a prime example. The musical underscoring (and a rather forgettable score at that) was a bit much, but when loved ones are reuniting after fearing the worst I cannot complain too much about it without sounding heartless. There's also a bizarre bit where it briefly turns into a scene right out of a horror film (again, the score lets you know it). Expect to see some very uncomfortable and at times compromising images of human bodies. The crew did not shy away and the cast understood it ought to be that way.
I read in a praise blurb that director Juan Antonio Bayona is being heralded as the next (Steven) Spielberg. It is an apt comparison, but after just two features I feel it is far too soon to start prophesying. He scared the shorts off audiences in "The Orphanage," one of the better horror films of the last five years, and now he has taken on a completely different beast with "The Impossible." Though they are both family-centered struggles that boast sophisticated filmmaking "magic." These are qualities you'll notice in Spielberg's work, but let us have this conversation again in say ten years from now.
This review turned out to be about many things (a quandary over knowledge of films before we see them, presentation of films, catering international films for America/British audiences, and Bayona's potential as a future house-hold name). It's a big film and lead my thoughts to many important topics about cinema itself, but I should conclude by focusing on this film itself: "The Impossible" is an incredible account of one family who become our lens for a terrible disaster, the cost and loss of human life and the ineffable gratitude we might experience when it is spared. It's the type of film that will make you come home and wrap your arms around a loved one and thank God (or life itself) that you have them in that moment. Sometimes, if not all the time, that's what truly matters in life. We ought to honor films capable of such an invokation.