The ocean is a beautiful and terrifying body of nature that can both entice and trap. Anyone who has been caught in a riptide or had an unexpected wave suddenly crash over their heads knows the power of the ocean, and the fear it can cause if it overtakes you. When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2004, we all saw the devastation that disaster caused to the area and heard about the lives lost and families torn apart because of it. Based on a true story, The Impossible goes a step further and actually takes us into the experience through the eyes of a family on an idyllic vacation that suddenly gets turned on its head.
Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) have traveled to Thailand with their three sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) to spend the Christmas holiday at a luxurious resort making their biggest question whether they want to swim in the resort’s pool or the nearby ocean. The day after Christmas the entire family is out by the pool, playing and relaxing, when the tsunami hits, proving to be as unexpected as it is relentless.
Seeing the true impact of the water is one thing, but realizing the amount of debris it carries with it offers a new view of the horror, particularly as we watch Maria get ravaged by not only the waves, but also the deadly objects being tossed and turned within them. Director Juan Antonio Bayona successfully and effectively takes us inside Maria’s experience and it is hard not to flinch and look away as we watch her attempt to not only reorient herself to swim to the surface, but avoid the piercing objects swirling around her.
Maria’s first sense of hope when she makes it to the surface comes from a chance spotting of her eldest son, Lucas, but this only leads to agony for both them and the audience as we watch the two try and swim towards one another. When they finally reunite and make it to dry ground, we realize their struggle has only just begun, as everything around them has been destroyed and not a single soul seems to remain. Added to that, while Lucas seems to have escaped fairly unscathed, Maria has a very serious injury that is causing her to lose blood at a rapid rate and that, almost more concerning, is making it difficult for her to walk.
The myriad of emotions such a tragedy would bring on is staggering as we watch these characters struggle with injuries, fear, confusion, but more than anything, the uncertainty if they will ever be reunited with one another again. Lucas is convinced his father and brothers are dead, making his mother’s ill health all the more terrifying, as we realize this young boy may suddenly be left completely alone in a foreign country, miles from home.
As Lucas rises to the occasion and helps his mother, as well as others in trouble along the way, Holland also rises to the challenge of impressively embodying a son on the verge of losing everything, but continuing to have hope and try to carry on. Without even saying a word, it is striking to witness the amount of emotion Holland is able to convey with a single look. Watts and McGregor each turn in impressive and memorable performances as parents dealing with such an unthinkable event, but Holland truly puts a face to this tragedy.
Bayona fills the narrative with magnificent and breathtaking visuals showing the beauty of the area, to its destruction, and its eventual aftermath. The effects truly take you into the middle of the horror, and the cast’s strong performances give those stunning scenes real heart and depth. The film is certainly a tearjerker, but its ending feels a bit too easy and, as such, it weakens the overall effect of the production. The Impossible was not “impossible” (sorry – had to do it) to enjoy, but after such an impressive journey, it was difficult not to expect a bit more out of its final moments.
The Upside: Unforgettable visuals helped create an immersive experience, riveting performances from the entire cast, and a well-placed score from Fernando Velázquez that worked to enhance emotions rather than manipulate them.
The Downside: An ending that made such a full and grand film experience feel a bit flat.
On the Side: The tsunami killed 230,210–280,000 people in fourteen different countries, making it the sixth deadliest natural disaster in recorded history.