Juan Antonio Bayona’s first full-length feature was 2007’s excellent ghost/horror story The Orphanage. With The Impossible, Bayona has created a film that has no ghosts, no monsters, no real jumps, but is a more effective horror film than many others lumped into the genre.
It’s the true story of a family holidaying in Thailand caught up in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over a quarter of a million people. Mother of the family Maria (Naomi Watts) is badly injured when the wave hits their beach resort and must rely on her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) to help her reach safety. Meanwhile, father Henry (Ewan McGregor) must take care of his two youngest sons, unaware as to whether his wife and other son are still alive.
With the tsunami still fresh in the minds of many, some may argue, eight years on, that it’s still too early to make a film about such a tragic event. The Impossible doesn’t hold back, either; it’s hard-hitting and rather uncomfortable to watch as you see death and destruction that tore so many lives and families apart reconstructed for your viewing ‘pleasure’. The effects are fantastic and the filmmakers have done an excellent job of conveying the panic, helplessness and horror as people, trees, houses get washed away in the blink of an eye. It’s brutal and makes no apology for it. The sound plays a huge part in this and is truly disturbing (although superb) at times, ranging from complete silence to horrifying rushing, gargling, ripping – an immensely stimulating aural experience.
However, whilst the film is gripping for the first half, it does lose its way in the second half and there are too many scenes that kill the pacing. It seems to meander around with some scenes feeling completely redundant. There’s even a dream sequence recalling the start of the film when the wave struck, as if to inject a bit of life back into the narrative. There are also times when things become a little too dramatised and are clearly added for emotional effect, which could lead to an awareness that your emotions are being manipulated just a tad, although this doesn’t stop the emotional punches being just as heavy when they do arrive.
Much of the film’s effectiveness comes from the performances of the actors and in particular Naomi Watts. From the outset, Watts is brilliant; you feel every one of her injuries and it’s exhausting seeing her struggle, wince, scream and cry for a large chunk of the film. An equally impressive showing is that from 16-year-old Tom Holland who plays his role with a maturity far beyond his years and, for the most part, outshines his more experienced co-star Mr McGregor. To be fair, McGregor does little wrong here, although aside from one heartbreaking scene, emotions are very much invested in the other characters.
A lot has been made of changing the nationality of the family from Spanish to English for the sake of the film and it is clearly profit-orientated. Had the film had been a Spanish-language film or hadn’t had the big names attached to it, it simply wouldn’t have made as big an impact. Sad but that’s the way Hollywood works much of the time. There is also a salient argument regarding the rather one-sided angle from which the film views the disaster, focusing on one family rather than the wider effects the tsunami had. However, it’s a largely ridiculous argument. This is a film about that family’s plight and has every right to be told. Just because they aren’t native to that country doesn’t make their story any less important or astonishing. Where there is a valid argument, however, is that the film may well have had a more emotional impact if some of the more devastating effects had been shown. This would have presented a more balanced picture of the disaster as well as giving the family’s story more context and even more emotional weight.
Disaster movies often get a bit of a bad rep for being mindless – heavy on style, light on substance. The Impossible, however, proves that there is room in that genre for films that buck that trend. This is no Day After Tomorrow eye porn that leaves you feeling soulless and guilty afterwards (just like regular porn, really); The Impossible is visceral, hard-hitting and emotive from start to finish.