The Impossible: Swept Away

NOTHING IS MORE POWERFUL THAN THE HUMAN SPIRIT.

theimpossibleI remember being safe at home in my parents’ house that Christmas holiday in 2004 when several tsunamis that had been triggered by a huge earthquake in the Indian Ocean killed over 230,000 people in 14 countries. Since many of the victims were tourists, the disaster affected countless families all over the world. I watched the news footage and naively wondered how those waves could have killed so many.

One of the goals achieved by The Impossible is showing exactly how – and making its audience realize that those who got caught by the waves and survived did so only because of sheer luck.

We are introduced to the Bennetts, a British family headed to Khao Lak, Thailand in late 2004 to spend Christmas there. Maria (Naomi Watts), a physician, is married to Henry (Ewan McGregor) and they have three sons, 10-year-old Lucas (Tom Holland), seven-year-old Tomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), who’s five. At the resort, they all have a wonderful time and Boxing Day begins without anything seeming out of place. They settle down by the pool, but from the moment when Maria notices that birds are suddenly flying off in a hurry to her struggling to keep head above water as her body is thrown around in a massive flood like it’s a scrap of paper caught in the wind, the difference is counted in seconds. Maria has no idea if her family survived the tsunami and the subsequent flood, but then she spots Lucas in the water. Eventually, they manage to get out of the flood and climb up a tree…

Purists may object
I’m not sure that director Juan Antonio Bayona could have made this film the way he desired were it not for the international success of his 2007 horror movie The Orphanage. His filmmaking skills is probably one major reason why big stars like Watts and McGregor signed on. As a marketing device, turning the Spanish family whose experiences the story was based upon into Brits was a clever choice that enabled the possibility of having stars in the leads, ultimately helping make this movie a considerable box-office hit.

Purists may object though, as I’m sure they also will against the movie’s most sentimental aspects. In all fairness, there’s at least one scene too many where the filmmakers tug at our heartstrings a little too intensely, with swelling music and sobbing actors. But intensely moving this story still is, in no small part due to the amazing performances of both McGregor and Watts who are entirely convincing as husband and wife. When they suffer (as Watts’s character certainly does), so do we, and we’re never sure of what’s going to happen, who’s going to live or die. The director and his crew are experts at manipulating our emotions, making us fear for the family’s safety, and sit at the edge of our seats as various members of the family who have been scattered all over the place are so close and yet remain unable to find each other.

The story and the filmmakers’ attitude may seem sentimental and shallow at times, but it takes skill to make us believe in it and root for the characters.

As for the tsunami sequences, the effects were created as part of the film’s relatively modest $45 million budget, and still look utterly realistic. The 2004 tsunami was not like watching a Hollywood-type wave the size of a skyscraper, but rather like being washed away by a flood so powerful it felled trees and moved cars. That effect is captured to a horrifying degree here. The Impossible is all about gut reactions, both during and after the wave.

The Impossible 2012-Spain. 114 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Belén Atienza, Álvaro Augustín, Ghislain Barrois, Enrique López Lavigne. Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona. Screenplay: Sergio G. Sánchez. Cast: Naomi Watts (Maria Bennett), Ewan McGregor (Henry Bennett), Tom Holland (Lucas Bennett), Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Marta Etura… Geraldine Chaplin.

Trivia: Spanish title: Lo imposible.

Last word: “There was always the question of going to the people there and knowing their opinion. Talking to those people, they want to see something faithful on the screen, which meant we had to show some uncomfortable images. When you’re portraying a tough situation you have to show some of the things in there. Of course there is a moment where you stop and think whether there’s a moment that doesn’t reveal the truth that was there, which comes before shooting. It was always a question of going to the people there and asking them. I asked one survivor, ‘What would you think of me showing corpses?’ He answered, ‘If you don’t show corpses in the film, I’ll feel angry. The tsunami was about death and devastation.’  These people want to see what was close to reality. Those are the people who have the authority over what is the right thing to do. All the big decisions were made after those discussions.” (Bayona, Film School Rejects)

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