Film Review: The Impossible

The ImpossibleJuan 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.

Naomi WattsMuch 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.

4 pigeons

    4/5 pigeons


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24 thoughts on “Film Review: The Impossible

  1. CMrok93 says:

    Good review. The script is as strong as the direction or acting, but that doesn’t matter all that much when you have a bunch of great performances like these. Especially Tom Holland, that kid really takes this screen and make it his.

  2. keith7198 says:

    Loved this movie – one of my bigger surprises. I never really felt it lost its way although one of the last scenes, while effective, feels straight out of Hollywood. That aside I found this to be a real treat. Difficult to watch at times but fantastic nonetheless.

    • Yeah it was a big surprise for me too to be honest, I wasn’t expecting huge amounts. There were just a couple of scenes that I felt weren’t really necessary, such as one of the children talking to that old woman about the stars in the sky or something like that. Just felt a little contrived. But those parts were very few and far between, I really enjoyed it.

  3. vinnieh says:

    Excellent review, it certainly looks like an emotionally involving film.

  4. meeradarjiyr1 says:

    This is a really moving film. I thought the story, through to visuals were brilliant. Tom Holland’s and Naomi’s performance is impeccable and truly deserves credit. Great review.

  5. I’m with Keith… I didn’t feel it “lost its way in the second half” at all really. For me this was one of the most powerful films of the year. Still glad to see you liked it though, Chris… I thought it was incredible!

    • I did like it very much, my complaints are pretty minor ones. I just thought there were certain scenes, like the one I mentioned to Keith and Watts’ dream sequence, that didn’t work for me. I thought that Watts and Holland were so good and their work together was so strong that when it went to focus on McGregor it lost something, even though he was pretty decent and that scene on the phone was brilliant.
      2013 certainly started off on a high note though and I already expect this to be on my best films list come the end of the year.

  6. Popcorn Nights says:

    Enjoyed this. I was initially skeptical about the film, especially given the release date being so close to the date of the tsunami itself, but it sounds like it has been handled as well as could possibly be expected.
    Interesting points about the way disasters are generally handled at the end, too. I’m in the middle of writing a post on Melancholia, and that’s been at the forefront of my mind, so it’s good to read about a film with some more substance.

    • I was skeptical too; I was worried it would be overly manipulative to try and make everyone cry, and there is a little bit of that, but there’s more to it.
      Melancholia is a very interesting disaster movie, again not so much focused on the actual disaster. And the disaster is probably a metaphor anyway, as is the way with that film! Looking forward to seeing what you have to say about it.

  7. sati says:

    Great review! I was deeply moved by this movie – I think I wept through 80% of it at least. Parts of it felt like manipulation, but I don’t have a problem with the way tsunami was portrayed I think even if they changed the main family the plight was he same – trying to get to your loved ones. Watts was incredible, I love McGregor in phone call scene. I’m shocked the movie didn’t get visual effect/sonud editiing nominations – the tsunami was amazingly well made.

    • Thank you 🙂 There were a lot of tears shed during this film (not by me admittedly, I have a heart of stone), it’s really hard hitting at times, particularly that phone call scene. That’s probably some of the best acting I’ve seen from McGregor.
      I was shocked too that it didn’t get any technical nominations, I was convinced it would get in the sound category at least. A huge oversight there.

  8. r361n4 says:

    Excellent review, I definitely agree that it bucks the trend for disaster movies being simplistic. Visceral feels like the perfect word

  9. ruth says:

    I’ll rent this one for sure and I’ll make sure there are plenty of tissues around. Sounds like a real tearjerker, especially since my home country was terribly affected by this disaster. This is definitely not one of those bombastic, commercialized disaster movies a la Roland Emmerich. Great review, Terry.

    • Thanks Ruth 🙂
      Roland Emmerich could learn a lot from this, for sure! I’ve read some accounts from people who were caught up in the tsunami and have seen the film and they have said it’s incredibly emotional, so being from a country affected by the tsunami, I’d definitely have some tissues ready!

  10. Awesome review. I agree it’s a bit manipulative but I found it very effective as well. Cried from beginning to end, lol. One of the best films of 2012 for me.

    • Cheers man! Yeah whilst I did find it a little manipulative, I didn’t really mind because it was such an involving story. We didn’t get it until this year but it’s already a big highlight for me.

      • Yeah, the story’s already pretty affecting (of course) but the fantastic actors made it even easier to relate. Kudos to Bayona too for placing us there in the middle of the destruction. It was difficult to watch but such a great emotional experience.

      • I agree, I thought Bayona’s direction was excellent and I also thought the sound was unbelievable, it really put you right there in the middle of it all.

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