On December 26 2004, a devastating Indian Ocean tsunami hit the coastline of Thailand. Everyone who was there and survived the terrible tragedy has a story of their own to tell.
The Impossible tells the true story of a certain Spanish family – here portrayed as British middle-class – who experienced and survived the coastline wipeout. The matter of their survival is no plot spoiler – the trailer and the marketing hype already tells us the outcome – but what the film centers on is how they survived and the absolute hell they each had to experience before reuniting against all impossible odds, hence the meaning of the title.
Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are Maria and Henry. With their three children they arrive at a Thailand resort on Christmas Eve, ready to spend the holiday relaxing in the surroundings of a tropical paradise before heading back to their rat race. Right from the beginning there are ominous signs of something unsettling about to occur. The sudden burst of noise as the plane the family flies in on seems louder than usual. The turbulence that follows unnerving Maria appears more dangerous than normal. On Christmas Day, the night before the catastrophe, the Indian Ocean appears calm under a peaceful moonlit sky, but somewhere in the distant background dogs are continuously barking.
When the tsunami hits it comes without warning. Vacationers are either swimming in the pool or sun-bathing. Resort waiters are serving drinks. Children are playing ball. Everything at the resorts suggests it is going to be another sunny day in paradise. Then power is lost. Ice-makers won’t work. The wind suddenly blows with a little more force. Birds suddenly scatter and fly away. And then it hits. An enormous wall of water suddenly bursts over the resort coming seemingly from nowhere, crashing down on everyone and everything, killing many in an instant while flinging others miles from where they were standing at the time of impact.
The tsunami scenes are reminiscent of the opening moments of Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. The setting is similar and the wall of water, the way is crashes over and through the resort buildings and washes dangerous debris out into the nearby streets, appear is if they could have been from the same film, except where in Hereafter the moments of disaster were more cinematic adventure, in The Impossible, the knowledge that this is something that really happened and most of the people we have already seen are probably dead gives the overall tone a completely different feel. This is vividly portrayed hell, and Maria, Henry and their three children are in the middle of it.
When calm returns, the clear, blue skies above suggests that everything is back to normal until we see an aerial view of the ground below and you instinctively know that the giant wave was only the beginning. Attempts to keep alive against all odds are going to be brutal for everyone who survived the crash, especially when you realize that the problem of a powerful wall of water is not the real issue; the dilemma is not being killed by flying shards of broken glass, floating debris and battered vehicles that appear to careen at you like vengeful, deadly missiles.
Both Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are quite remarkable in gut-wrenching situations adding depth to their characters enabling the impact of the disaster to appear all the more distressing. The family, separated by the calamity but clinging on to life and the hope that each have somehow survived, is truly inspirational. When Henry meets up with his oldest boy, he instructs him to look after the youngest. “I’ve never looked after someone before,” the boy replies, then adds, “I’m scared.”
The Impossible is overwhelming, and there is the tendency to ask if a real-life disaster such as this is really something to be turned into entertainment, but I’m siding with director Juan Antonio Bayona. It’s a story worth telling, and after years of watching adventurous disaster films of fictional heroism, to watch one through the prism of reality is to be thankful that the likelihood of anything this traumatic will ever happen to either you or I is doubtful has an element of comfort to it.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 117 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)