Director Juan Antonio Bayona follows up his creepy Spanish horror film The Orphanage with The Impossible; a drama based on the real-life story of one family’s survival through the 2004 tsunami that struck Southeast Asia. Bayona’s The Impossible is a performance-driven heavy-hitter that strikes as both a disturbingly beautiful special effects reel and an emotional tale of never losing hope and helping others in a desperate time of need. It’s a tear-jerker and most-likely an Oscar contender for the inspirational performance by Naomi Watts.
Right out of the gate comments have been flooding in regarding Bayona’s decision to cast mostly white Americans in the leading roles, instead of Spanish actors to match the ethnicity of the real-life family, but if something like that can completely ruin a movie-going experience for you then you’re going to want to pass on this one before giving it a chance, because The Impossible is so much more than that and cutting it down to that size is unfairly judging an otherwise remarkably moving film.
Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) are a wealthy couple vacationing in Southeast Asia with their three young sons. They’ve just arrived around Christmas time and plan to spend the holiday relaxing with each other by the ocean side. What they don’t know is that a deadly tsunami is about to strike and wipe out a large stretch of land and kill over 230,000 people in the process. It’s a tragic story and one that is handled with delicacy and realism by director Juan Antonio Bayona.
Bayona shoots The Impossible with an extreme amount of urgency. The film opens in maybe fifteen minutes and almost immediately after follows with the tsunami strike and the aftermath. There’s enough revealed in the opening minutes to make you want to watch this family’s struggle, but the actual character building is shown throughout the rest of the film. Bayona wisely keeps the opening brief to spend the rest of the film peeling back at the characters and showing their real personalities when death stares them directly in the face.
This is where The Impossible benefits the most. It’s a universal drama. Those that complain about the ethnicity of the characters are completely missing the point that Bayona is trying to make. He’s not trying to tell you to watch and feel bad because a family of white people experienced hell on Earth. He’s trying to show you that it doesn’t matter who or even what you are, because we all experience natural disasters like this the same. We all suffer, sometimes alone and sometimes in the comfort of others. We may come from different walks of life, but in the end we’re all going to do the same to survive and ensure the survival of those around us.
And that’s one bold statement to make and if the film were in the hands of anyone else I might have called bullshit, but not today. The Impossible is a one-two punch that blends impressive and hard-hitting visuals with first-class acting. The special effects team on this film should be amended, because the entire tsunami sequence feels like a big-budget disaster movie that’s grounded in harsh reality. It’s brutal and sometimes almost too hard to watch, but it gets the point across loud and clear.
Naomi Watts carries the film with her performance as Maria. She’s the very definition of a loving mother that will not under any circumstances abandon her family. She’s literally thrown around and cut up for extended minutes at a time, just to ensure the safety of her son. Watts’ on-screen physical performance of getting thrown around and beat-up in the water might be the attention-grabber, but it’s her character’s drive that leaves the lasting impact. Maria will not stop to sleep, rest or eat until her family is safe and accounted for. She spends most of the film in rough shape, but she continues to trek through the messy wasteland because it’s something she has to do. Watts understands the character and just how important her drive is to the other characters and to the overall film.
Ewan McGregor‘s turn as the loving father Henry doesn’t feel nearly as strong and that’s mostly because Watts gets much more screen time than he does. McGregor stretches his limits during an on-screen breakdown and while the scene mostly works, there are moments where it feels as if he’s going a little overboard with the performance. It’s appropriate for the character, but it just doesn’t feel natural coming out of McGregor, especially after only seeing him for ten minutes prior.
The Impossible could have easily been another surface-level family drama made solely to tug on your heart-strings, but J.A. Bayona made sure that wasn’t the case by keeping the film feeling mostly raw and unafraid to show the true horror of a tsunami. Most directors would have glossed over the tsunami stuff and focus more on the aftermath and the dramatic performances, but Bayona switches that around and focuses more on the life-altering event and then follows it with heavy drama.
It’s an uneven film that lays itself on a little too thick towards the climax, but everything leading to that point will have you gasping for air and waiting to see what happens next. Naomi Watts anchors down the human weight with a performance that should earn her an Oscar nomination at the very least and J.A. Bayona directs the tragedy with a sharp eye for scope and scale. The Impossible starts out feeling very big and large-scaled, but then as it moves along it draws itself in and becomes a more personal tale about survival and finding hope in hopeless times.
The Impossible – 8/10