The Impossible (Lo Imposible) (2012)
The Impossible is a disaster movie, but it's unlike anything that Roland Emmerich or Irwin Allen has ever made. At times, it almost feels like a deconstruction of a disaster movie; the actual tsunami is only seen at the beginning of the film and again in a flashback near the end, it's played more for sheer horror than for thrills, and the rest of the film is spent in the refugee camps and overflowing hospitals that are, at best, only seen in passing in films like Earthquake, 2012, and The Day After Tomorrow. Rather than focusing on the stressed-out scientists and bureaucrats trying to prevent or mitigate some over-the-top, world-ending disaster, The Impossible is a drama about one family trying to survive in the wake of the very real 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. That is where this film stands out from the rest of the pack and truly shines.
Like I mentioned, this is not a film to see if you're looking for an action-packed thrill ride. The special effects used to portray the tsunami and its aftermath are high-quality, but they are not meant to look awesome. Rather, they are meant to be terrifying. When I saw the second wave coming in, knocking down palm trees and telephone poles and bearing down on the film's protagonists, I didn't say "oh, cool!", but rather, "oh, shit." Survivors of the tsunami apparently had flashbacks upon seeing the trailer, and I'm not surprised in the least. The night after I came home from the theater, I felt physically exhausted by the film, and while I wouldn't call them nightmares, my mind was certainly preoccupied by the tsunami, thoughts of what I would've done had I been there, as I went to sleep. Director Juan Antonio Bayona, maker of The Orphanage, has made what is easily one of the most harrowing disaster flicks I've ever seen.
Furthermore, the tsunami itself is hardly the main focus of the film. Rather, that would be the Bennetts, the mother, father, and three sons who spend the film looking for one another in the midst of the chaos that followed the tsunami. The Bennetts are based on an actual family, the Belons, who were closely involved with the production (particularly the mother, Maria) to ensure accuracy; the only significant change is in their nationality, which was originally Spanish but here is unspecified (though in the English translation, at least, it can be inferred that they're either British or Australian). Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are outstanding as the parents Maria and Henry, with Watts taking on a very physical and very unglamorous role in the first half of the film while McGregor supplies the emotional anchor in the second half. His phone call to his father had me breaking down right there with him. Both of them should be looking at Oscar nominations in the coming weeks. The child actors here are no slouches either, with Tom Holland as young Lucas able to hold his own against Watts -- quite a feat for a kid who was fourteen years old when the film was made. The cast doesn't really contain any weak links -- everybody pulls their weight under Bayona's direction.
The only things that I can fault this film for are that the middle was a bit slow for my tastes, and that the end seemed a bit too feel-good. I enjoyed the film most when the Bennetts were out struggling to survive; it was in these moments where I was reminded of The Grey, a survival thriller that stands as one of my best films of 2012, and which I really ought to review some time. By contrast, the scenes in the hospital, with the exception of one scene where Lucas is looking to help reunite people with their lost family members, tended to drag, with Watts given little to do after she arrives at the hospital. I also found the ending to be a bit too neat and convenient, with everybody reuniting at the last minute. Still, while noticeable, these aren't anywhere close to deal-breaking problems.
Score: 4 out of 5
And a very high 4, at that. This isn't a film I plan on watching again, but I'm very glad to have seen it. A scary disaster movie rooted in human drama rather than flashy special effects, The Impossible is a clear contender for some Best Actor/Actress Oscars, and director Bayona should be looking at much bigger work from here on out.