Some films labeled as Oscar bait actually go on to win Oscars, but others simply get shunned for their supposed efforts to manipulate audiences. Sadly, Juan Antonia Bayona‘s The Impossible fell into the latter category. The film follows a vacationing family caught up in the 2004 tsunami that devastated coastal areas in Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere, killing over 230,000 people in the process. The family’s experience is brought to immediate life through powerful performances and Bayona’s dedication to crafting terrifyingly realistic sequences.
The film attracted criticism for casting Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as part of a “whitewashing” of the true story, but that’s just people being willfully ignorant and missing the point of the film altogether. Instead the takeaway should simply be that this is a story of love, loss, hope and the realization that there is no guarantee of a tomorrow.
Keep reading to see what I learned from the commentary track for The Impossible.
The Impossible (2012)
Commentators: J.A. Bayona (director), Sergio G. Sánchez (writer), Belén Atienza (producer), Maria Belón (story writer and the woman Naomi Watts’ character is based upon)
1. The film opens with the sound of a jet engine because that’s how Maria Belón described the sound of the tsunami.
2. The filmmakers stripped the script and the character of the family down to the basics because they wanted audiences to feel that it could very well be their own.
3. Belén Atienza heard Belón telling the story on the radio for the third anniversary of the tsunami and contacted her about turning it into a film.
4. The early scene where the family and others release flamed lanterns into the sky caught a lucky break in that one of them kept breaking away from the pack. Sergio G. Sánchez was on set and pointed it out to the others allowing for additional dialogue to be added on the fly.
5. One of Belón’s conditions for allowing her story to be turned into a film was that the family’s nationality never be explicitly stated since everyone involved was equal before the waves. “We were the same. We had no race, no language, no nationality, no social standard. We were just the same.”
6. The pool scene featuring the arrival of the tsunami was shot at the actual hotel pool where Belón and her family were, and it was staged in the exact same way.
7. Belón describes the water not as a wave but as a wall. The terror is still recognizable in her voice as she recalls the moment she popped up out of the water to cling to a tree, concluded her family was dead and decided that she wanted to join them. Seeing her son pass by in the water instantly put her back into survival mode.
8. Belón repeatedly described events to Bayona only to follow up with the concern that there was no way he could recreate it faithfully for a film. She was consistently surprised when he did just that.
9. The scene where Maria and Lucas hear the boy crying and set off to help him has been described to her as a heroic act, but Belón views it differently. “It was a selfish decision. It was something we did in order to go on with life.”
10. “This is another nice present we got from the water,” says Belón, referring to their discovery of a still-closed Coke can while she and her son wandered the destruction. She recalls that she’s a strict mom who only allows soda on special occasions, but she decided this circumstance totally counted.
11. Like the earlier pool scene, Maria and Lucas’ arrival at the hospital was filmed at the actual scene where it happened. Belón recalls how the community was incredibly appreciative of the filmmaker’s efforts to acknowledge their experiences.
12. Belón has been asked by several people why the film is in English when she and her family are Spanish. “Who cares? Who cares about the language? Who cares about the nationalities? The film is not about this, the film is about human beings.”
13. The water in Belón’s lungs from the tsunami took months to clear completely.
14. Some have criticized the seemingly contrived nature of the scene where Henry searches the hospital but keeps missing Maria and their son, but in real life he made two trips through the hospital only to miss Maria both times.
15. Ewan McGregor’s first day of shooting actually featured the filming of the emotionally charged final reunion scene because rain prevented outdoor scenes from being shot.
16. Bayona views the film as almost a coming of age tale for Lucas as well as for his family. He sees it as an end of innocence and the maturation of the entire family.
17. Sanchez points out two scenes meant to highlight the caregiver role of the Thai people in the wake of the tragedy. The first is the early scene where a dazed and injured Maria is dressed by several old women, and the second is when she goes into surgery and the nurse whispers to her “Close your eyes and think of something nice.”
18. Bayona reiterates the importance of telling the story from a Western perspective because “the movie tries to explain not just the tragedy but to make it universal, to talk about our own lives… our illusionary world of materialistic things and false sense of security.”
Best in Commentary
- Belón: ”When you came, you were the crazy people from cinema saying ‘We would like to do a film.’ I thought, ‘Okay.’”
- Belón: ”I have to tell you, the real ball was yellow. So this is one of the biggest lies in the movie, the color of the ball. It was yellow.”
- Belón: ”We were in hell, and we thought it was nothing worse than that but always something can get worse. That was the second wave.”
- Belón: ”When people tell us how lucky we were, I always say the same thing. We would be lucky if everybody would survive.”
The Impossible is a pretty fantastic movie with an incredibly unfortunate final few minutes, but even if you find fault or shmaltz elsewhere, you’d be hard pressed to deny the film’s emotional power. The term “harrowing” doesn’t do it justice as there are some powerfully affecting scenes here thanks in part to some beautiful acting from Watts, McGregor and young Tom Holland. Definitely recommended for folks in need of a good cry.
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