The conceptual simplicity of The Impossible borders on the primordial: Take a family – the foundational connections parents share with their children and with each other – smack it with a giant natural disaster, and see how it reacts. I confess I’m a sucker for existential themes of human endurance in the face of mortality and the cosmos’ capacity for destruction. I’m also a sucker for movies, of which I think we have too few, about families that are actually healthy and functional. And The Impossible largely delivers the goods on both counts, subjecting one such family to the particularly brutal stress test of the tidal wave that smashed into South Asia around Christmas of 2004.
Henry (Ewan McGregor) and his wife Maria (Naomi Watts) have traveled to Thailand with their three sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) to spend Christmas on the beach. There are some early scenes to establish the broad strokes of the family’s dynamics, and a montage of them cavorting at the resort. Then the wave arrives: Maria and Lucas are swept off in one direction, Henry and the two younger boys in another, and the rest of the film is a mad, bloody, visceral scramble to survive the aftermath.
This is the gangbuster sequence of the film. Director Juan Antonio Bayona imparts with bone-crushing immediacy the force of the rampaging wall of water. Buildings are demolished in a blink, trees and cars are swept away, and human bodies are tossed like rag dolls hit with a sledge hammer. The utter loss of control and the vulnerability to deadly debris are palpable as Maria and Lucas are swept inland by the deluge. They find one another, are torn apart, swim back again, cling to mattresses, trees, and concrete posts. Bayona’s camera work is first rate here, as he expertly cuts between hand-held point-of-view shots and larger visual compositions. It seamlessly combines the raw terror of the woman and boy with the monstrous scale of the disaster.
Meanwhile, Henry, Simon, and Thomas manage to survive at the resort. After the water drains away, the two halves of the broken family trudge through the devastation, arrive at various shelters and hospitals, scrounge for resources, receive help, and try to tackle the absurdly daunting logistical challenge of tracking one another down.
The father and two boys are relegated to somewhat secondary roles, though McGregor performs with his usual aplomb. Watts and Holland really carry the film, as Maria slowly descends into sickness from some rather gruesome injuries and Lucas must become the caregiver. Both mother and son also insist on reasserting their own humanity as well as that of their fellow survivors. They don’t simply react to the disaster, but attempt to creatively respond to the needs of their fellows.
The film is apparently based on the real-life experience of a Spanish family, though the Spanish production ultimately decided to make the characters British for the move to cinema. It’s an implicit, grating, and disappointing suggestion that films will do better box office if the headliners are pale and English-speaking. The other dig on The Impossible is that, for a film about one of the worst disasters to ever hit Thailand, it features very few Thai characters. That is a stark reminder of how class, racial, and national privileges manifest even in how humans vacation and organize in the wake of catastrophe. But I don’t think it’s a reality the film can be faulted for.
Unlike the alteration of the family’s heritage, the singularity of The Impossible’s focus is an understandable move in terms of storytelling economy. A film that tried to write large the experience of the Thailanders would be more than worthy. But The Impossible’s decision to try to find something of the universal in these particulars is worthy as well. Nor am I going to write off the film simply because the characters happen to be well-off, anymore than I would write off a film about Thailanders who are not. I think we should make some allowances that filmmakers will ultimately gravitate to stories about what they know. (Devin Faraci lambasted the film by asking how people would react if a Thai production made a movie about a Thai family’s experience of 9/11, in which all American characters were relegated to the background. I, for one, would think that a fascinating film, and would like to see it.)
I’m as sick as anyone of the relentlessness with which American movie trailers, including The Impossible’s, gush about “the power of the human spirit.” But Hollywood advertising is inevitably a shallow, vanilla, non-sectarian business aimed at appealing to the largest denominator. The triumphalism of the phrase is a transparent attempt to gussy up what is, in the right hands, inherently dark and arresting subject matter.
So The Impossible works in that sense. But it’s also the Jason Bourne of disaster dramas: it is so stripped-down to the practical mechanics that nothing else really slips in. The visuals and production are phenomenally well-executed, and the performances are all top notch. Combine that craftsmanship with the material and you can’t help but be moved. But that also renders The Impossible rather transitory – compelling while it’s in front of you, but not terribly profound or lasting in its impressions.