It’s been almost 10 years since the devastating Indian Ocean Tsunami claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in South East Asia. Curiously Hollywood has tiptoed around the disaster before now – probably because of its mammoth scale and freshness – with 2010’s Hereafter being the only high profile film to touch on the event. That changes though with the release of Spanish-made The Impossible, a harrowing mix of real-life drama and survival horror. The film is frequently a tough watch, but it is very effective in plunging the viewer into a nightmarish situation, forcing you to contemplate how you would have handled it and its chaotic aftermath. Zombie movies have nothing on this.
If you are looking for an epic disaster film with a vast cast that chronicles how the tsunami affected all cultural and class groups, The Impossible will disappoint. Although ordinary Thai people appear in the film as support characters and selfless villagers, this true story lasers in on one specific family, the (evidently British) Bennetts, and their experiences while vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami struck.
The Bennets are introduced as your average middle-class family. Mom Maria (Naomi Watts) is contemplating a return to work as dad Henry (Ewan McGregor) is entering a period of job uncertainty. Meanwhile 13 year old Lucas (Tom Holland) is at the petulant teen stage and has no patience for his two younger brothers. These everyday issues fade into inconsequentiality once the wave arrives.
There’s an ominous build-up to the tsunami that some audience members are sure to find powerfully unsettling and others incredibly unsubtle. Still, disregarding the surging film score, a real sense of dread hangs over moments like the sight of dozens of families at a beachfront holiday resort, enjoying a quiet Christmas dinner while being completely ignorant of their fate.
Once the tsunami hits though, the film veers into compelling but hard-to-watch territory. Shot in a massive tank, the flooding scenes are highly credible, particularly a sequence that follows Watts’s character underwater as she’s spun around and battered by debris. Be warned now though. The Impossible’s graphic depiction of injuries brings back memories of that other real-life survival tale, 127 Hours. In other word’s it’s not for the squeamish.
This said, you can show awful situations and wounds as much as you want, but ultimately it falls to the actors to make the audience care about what they’re seeing. The shock factor only goes so far. Fortunately The Impossible is driven by award-worthy performances by its cast – even if it’s only Watts who scored an Oscar nomination. Particular strong moments are Henry’s phone call, during which the shock buffer wears off, and Maria’s retching fit, which sends Lucas over the emotional edge. For the record, Holland is quite superb in capturing Lucas’s evolution from sulky, self-absorbed boy, to a young man pushing through paralysing fear and trying to ignore a growing sense of hopelessness.
Although The Impossible becomes obvious again in its closing moments, it’s a cinematic journey well worth taking… if you can take it! In depicting the horror of surviving a disaster in a poor foreign country where you don’t speak the language, the film hits an emotional nerve and just keeps jabbing. If you can’t handle the sight of human suffering, beware.
Last Updated: March 8, 2013