THE IMPOSSIBLE, 2012
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Stars: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Oaklee Pendergast, Geraldine Chaplin, Marta Etura, Sönke Möhring, Dominic Power
An account of a family caught, with tens of thousands of strangers, in the mayhem of one of the worst natural catastrophes of our time.
On December 26, 2004 a massive undersea earthquake in the Pacific Ocean resulted in a major tsunami which swept westwards, crashing into Thailand and surrounding areas of southern Asia. One of the worst natural disasters of the 2000s, it's status has finally been cemented by the crown all great disasters require -- becoming the setting of a Hollywood film.
Fortunately Juan Antonio Bayona's ("The Orphanage") has made a really good film out of it, painting a tightly focused very human story against the epic backdrop of the tsunami and its aftermath.
The human's here are Henry (Ewan McGregor) a successful ex-patriat businessman living in Japan who has taken doctor wife Maria (Naomi Watts) and kids on a Christmas vacation to Thailand. When their resort is wiped out the family finds itself spread out across Thailand, with a badly wounded Maria in the hands of her eldest son (Tom Holland) trying to figure out how to go on in both the short term, when survival is not at all guaranteed, and the long term if it turns out the rest of the family is gone.
Bayona has managed what many of tried but few have succeeded at, creating a film with an epic feel, particularly early on when the tsunami strikes, and quickly continuing on to show the sheer devastation of the aftermath, and then the massive rescue effort and the seeming impossibility of finding loved ones.
Bayona and his colleagues have eschewed the easy melodrama of the disaster film to show the reality of surviving such a disaster, which doesn't mean "The Impossible" isn't intensely gripping. Bayona knows how to use the reality he has (re-)created to tighten the screws as surely as any thriller, not to mention playing up the human drama of the film as Maria and Lucas struggle to survive assuming they are the lone survivors of the disaster until being rescued by local fisherman.
It's great fodder for an actor and Watts takes full advantage of it, giving one of the best performances of her career. But it's Holland who is the real secret weapon, particularly as Maria becomes weaker and weaker due to her wounds, leaving Lucas to become the focus of Bayona's real story about human connection as he begins to help others staying at the hospital to do what he fears he cannot -- meet with the loved ones again.
Because just making it to a hospital and 'civilization' is not the end of their ordeal by a long shot as Maria gets weaker and "The Impossible" begins to cut back and forth to Henry searching in vain for the rest of his family and fearing he is likewise the last one left and wondering how long he can continue searching with terrible odds staring him in the face. "The Impossible" is one of the most affecting films of the year.
Which is why its such a disappointment that Bayona throws much of that away for an easy ending, comforting his audience by seeming to say 'as hard as its been, it all comes out all right in the end.'
Maybe after such pain something sweet is needed for real catharsis. Maybe. Or maybe happy endings are impossible to avoid in Hollywood. Maybe it's what people really want. Either way it still feels cheap. But if it moves "The Impossible" down to just nearly great, that's still pretty good.