Brace for Impact
One of the largest earthquakes in the region sparked off one of the worst ever tsunamis to hit our planet at multiple geographies, I still remember the relative calm back in that December of 2004 just after Christmas, until reality set in with the first images of the chaos that's to come through. Disasters have always proven to be fodder for filmmakers, and the challenge here is not to make them overly sentimental, or worse, seem exploitative in treatment.
Clint Eastwood's Hereafter had the same disaster form the premise of his film, but in this Spanish production, we get the narrative centered around the incident proper in Phuket, where a holidaying family get caught up in this unfortunate moment in history, and we go through their respective struggles to battle fear, confusion, shock, loss and root for their reconciliation, forming just but a snapshot of most of the emotions that survivors would likely have gone through. With a true story of a family's experience forming the inspiration behind Maria Belon and Sergio G. Sanchez's story and screenplay, The Impossible boasts both technical brilliance as well as wonderful acting by its leading cast to draw you into those fateful days, putting you smack where the action is.
Husband and wife Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three kids Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) are spending their Christmas week in Phuket, only for the ocean to come up and swallow a lot of land. And by now we would know the devastating effects a tsunami would have as waters sweep inward, gets drawn outward back to the sea, before the next wave comes in again. This gets repeated, with each cycle having the waves becoming smaller, but still bringing about plenty of debris and whatever it had uprooted and moved, making the undercurrents extremely fraught with danger.
While Hereafter had some cheap special effects for sequences of the disaster proper, director Juan Antonio Bayona had a more incredible design and experience for the audience, with models being key to his presentation, and knowing exactly just how to keep tension, and the transmission of fear, vivid through the survive, sink or swim perspective of Maria and Lucas. This goes on for minutes, and it's extremely harrowing. Sound design is also excellent, with the roar of waters overhead perfectly contrasting the muted underwater scenes, which in itself is in ironic sync given its busy undercurrents with debris smashing into one's body, and the need to get onto higher ground, dry land, or just about any flotation device or tree up above. And Bayona doesn't just end it here, knowing that his money shots in this sequence becomes yet another perfect metaphor for Maria later on as well.
It's a tale told in two parts, with Maria and Lucas' storyline highlighting the chaos that ensued after the waters subside, and the assistance rendered by good Samaritan villagers who do what they could in order to save lives. Bayona doesn't shy away from the more difficult shots of both showing the devastation of property, and the loss of human lives, and with an excellent make up team to bring about a vivid portrayal of those injured, or at the brink of death. Whatever they put on Naomi Watts made her look genuinely sick, and undoubtedly helped in her performance, nominated for various awards to date. But it's Tom Holland whom I thought stole the show in their arc, as the young boy faced with fear and uncertainty, both on the condition of his mom, as well as that in the chaos in hospital, with a little bit of humanity weaved in as he goes about reuniting strangers, albeit treated quite lightly, and coincidentally, given the more perplexing and frustrating time where the lack of records for obvious reasons hindered, and sapped emotional strength as hope faded with each passing day.
The other storyline deals with Henry, his other two boys and a family's search for their remaining members, expanding upon Lucas' experience in one location, to that of hitting multiple hospitals and shelter locations, in addition to the difficulties of moving forward and ahead to abandon places already searched. Bayona kept it rather safe here with only fleeting shots of bodies and body bags, never lingering more than necessary. McGregor's character moves with survivors in their respective searches for family, which gives rise to opportunities to showcase how strangers come together, pulling resources and lending morale support, with some who had to hardened their hearts and understandably seeking to consolidate whatever they have in a me-first situation. Again the children Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast, while not having as big a role as Tom Holland, were the highlight here, stealing McGregor's thunder easily, and you'll be hard pressed not to find your eyes a little damp from time to time.
Some may find fault with its convenient wrap, or take issue with the family's resources at the finale, but these happen to be what's available as resources at the time, and it's not too far fetched to finish rather strongly. After all, this is a film about the human spirit in times of disaster, and an account of their experiences in pulling through their ordeal. For sure there are countless of stories centered around the same event, but I suppose these are stories that would be told by other filmmakers. For now, Juan Antonio Bayona's film stands out as one of the best efforts both technically and creatively, capturing the horror and celebrating triumph in the smallest of ways, with all round fine delivery by its cast both well known, and young. A definite recommend!