by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: J.A. Bayona
CAST: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Geraldine Chaplin
MY RATING: 9/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 81% Certified Fresh
PLOT: The story of a tourist family in Thailand caught in the destruction and chaotic aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The Impossible, directed by J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), is one of the best true-to-life survivor stories I’ve seen since Touching the Void. No doubt some liberties were taken here and there at the screenplay level, as always happens with movie adaptations, but while the film played out, the story was as gripping as any book by John Krakauer.
It’s 2004, and the Bennett family is on Christmas vacation in Thailand, at a beautiful beachside resort that has only been open for a week. (In a nice little detail, we see that the protective plastic film has not yet been removed from their light switch panels.) Henry (McGregor) and Maria (Watts) enjoy Christmas Eve and Christmas day with their three sons, Thomas, Simon, and Lucas (Tom Holland in his cinematic debut, already doing cartwheels and backflips on the beach). On the morning of December 26th, an unthinkable catastrophe occurs when a tsunami, triggered by a massive seaquake offshore, slams into the beach. The visual effects during this sequence are as convincing and terrifying as anything I’ve ever seen. As the wave sweeps over everything in its path, the Bennett family is separated. Maria and her son Lucas manage to find each other in the immediate aftermath, but there is no sign of Henry and her other two sons.
What follows is a story that gives new meaning to the words “hopeless” and “hope.” While the outcome is somewhat predictable – SOMEONE survived to tell this story, after all – the filmmakers have managed to put together a film that generates suspense and cheers despite what we may or may not know about this family. There are scenes of people missing each other in hospital hallways by seconds. In a lesser film, it might have been comic. In THIS movie, those scenes generated groans of empathetic frustration from the audience (that is, me). By that time, we had followed various Bennett family members through many highs and lows, and I desperately wanted the right people to be found at the right time. It was unexpectedly effective.
That sentiment applies to the movie as a whole, not just that one scene. I have seen so many disaster movies that I was primed to expect certain cliches and tropes, even though this movie was highly rated and recommended when it came out. To be fair, this movie does indulge in those tropes. I mean, by nature, it HAS to. The difference with The Impossible is that these stereotypical events and scenes all felt way more real than expected. Credit to the screenwriter and director for molding these cliches into something more compelling than yet another reworking of The Day After Tomorrow. When the finale of The Impossible arrives, it feels uplifting and inspirational instead of hackneyed and obvious. It’s a neat little magic trick that I wish I could explain better.
An interesting self-reflective thought occurred to me during this movie. There is a scene where Henry, the father, is huddled with a group of English-speaking survivors in a bus station. Someone offers Henry his cellphone, even though he is trying to save his battery in case his own family tries to reach him. Henry reaches someone in England, but because he still cannot find his wife, he breaks down and hands the phone back to the stranger. The stranger looks at Henry, looks at his phone, and hands it back to Henry: “You can’t leave it like that. Call him back.”
My entire life, my favorite sub-genre of science fiction has been anything dealing with an apocalypse or set in a post-apocalyptic future, like The Matrix or World War Z or the superlative HBO series The Last of Us. One of the things many of the movies in that genre have in common is the inherent tendency for humans to turn on each other or behave selfishly when the chips are down. You know what I’m talking about, right? Somebody finds water in the desert, and instead of helping mankind, they sell it to the highest bidder. Or someone discovers that the invading aliens will give them preferential treatment if they help round up more humans themselves. That kind of thing.
Well, here is The Impossible, based on a true story, and here is a man who desperately needs to save the battery power on his cellphone, but whose compassion will not allow him to let Henry’s short conversation go unfinished. “You can’t leave it like that.”
I have no way of knowing if this moment really happened or if it was manufactured. All I can report is that scene, in a movie full of hard-hitting emotional beats, is probably my favorite scene. Here is an apocalyptic situation in the truest sense of the word. Here is a person who could have been justifiably selfish, but his empathy won’t allow him to turn his back on someone who is suffering. It even got me wondering: would I do the same?
If this scene was taken from real life, then maybe all those post-apocalyptic movies got it wrong. Maybe, when the chips are down, people are inherently good. Is it possible? I’d like to think so. I’d like to think I’d do the same.
Long story short: The Impossible takes you on an unforgettable ride made even more remarkable due to it being based on a true story. It’s full of great performances and astonishing visuals, but you may never want to stay at a beach resort again…
P.S. According to the real-life woman played by Naomi Watts, the biggest “lie” in the movie was the color of the ball her children were playing with just before the tsunami struck…it was yellow, not red. Do with that information what you will.