Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Impossible (2012) - Movie Review

It's interesting that such a simple, nondescript title like The Impossible works on multiple levels...

Just when I thought I was done with all of the 2012 Oscar contenders, here's another one that flew in under the radar.  I was a little leery when the film started, as it opens with the phrase I usually hate seeing, "This is based on a true story."  They even let the "true story" linger on the screen for a few extra seconds.  It's not that I don't like movies based on true stories, it's just that it seems like most films embellish so much on the original story that it doesn't resemble what it was really about by the end.  The Impossible doesn't seem like that type of film though. Well, except for one part, but we'll get to that later.

The Belon family takes a vacation to Thailand on Christmas.  You don't get to know much about them other than a general idea of what Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) do for a living, and that they seem like a fairly normal family.  Their vacation is interrupted the day after Christmas, when without any kind of warning a massive tsunami hits.  A weird part of my mind drifted for a moment, and I wondered why there wasn't any kind of warning like we get when we know a massive storm or hurricane is coming.  Is there something about the nature of tsunamis that makes them impossible to detect in advance?  It turns out that a Thai meteorologist actually did predict this tsunami, and advocated early warning systems, but wasn't taken seriously.  After this tsunami, they brought this guy out of retirement and put him in charge of development of a regional early warning system.  I wonder what this guy's 'I told you so' dance looked like?

Sorry about the side track there.  The tsunami is one of the most realistic and intense disasters sequences I've ever witnessed in a movie.  Much of what you see appeared to be practical effects, rather than relying too much on CG-effects.  It's definitely a sight to be seen, and heard, in the theater.  It doesn't glamorize the disaster either.  You really feel every painful moment and it's frightening to sit though.  Maria gets absolutely torn up by it and when you see the speed of tsunami it seems impossible that anyone could survive the initial wave, let alone being carried away by the current.

When the water finally recedes, Maria and her oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) are are separated from the rest of their family.  They need to get to safety, but Maria desperately needs medical care.  You wonder how she's even alive at this point, and I could only be impressed by her will to live.  We then catch back up to Henry, who was able to stick with his two youngest sons.  Henry has no way of contacting his family back home, and has no clue if Maria and Lucas have survived. He's driven to find them, to the point where he's willing to risk leaving his sons to go with another group to get to high ground.  This was a part that was hard for me to watch, as I just couldn't imagine letting your kids out of your sight at this point.

When I said the title of the movie worked on multiple levels, it's because it finally did something that I thought was impossible:  it made me cry.  I don't think I've cried watching a film in more than two years.  The Impossible didn't just make me cry once, but I broke down multiple times.  When you see the ordeal these people go through, you can't help but be moved by what happens on screen.  There's a scene were the simple act of lending a cell phone to a stranger got to me.

Naomi Watts gives her finest performance to date, and it was also an impressive amount of physical acting on her part.  It's impossible (see what I keep doing there?) to not feel the hell she goes through.  She's my sleeper pic for an Best Actress Oscar nomination.  Ewan McGregor also gives a great performance and shows a range we aren't used to seeing from him.  Normally we see him be charming or having fun, but this time he's extremely vulnerable.  The kids are also fantastic, especially Tom Holland as Lucas.  He has to carry stretches of the film, and you get to see him evolve.  At the beginning he seems like a whiny, selfish kid, but he grows before your very eyes, and the movie is as much about his maturity and the compassion he learns for others than it is about reuniting his family.

My only minor complaint is after watching all of this you are finally shown a picture of the actual family, and see that they white-washed the real, Spanish family, to Europeans.  I kind of figured this was going to be the case, as they tend to change the ethnicity or look of the real people involved to sell the film to a larger audience.  I just found it a little surprising considering the director, Juan Antonio Bayona, is Spanish.

Speaking of the director, this is Bayona's first film since 2007's The Orphanage, another movie that caught me off guard with the range of emotions it put me through.  The direction is impressive for the realism of the tsunami sequence, but he is able to get a lot out of the film without it being cloying or having a sweeping score that manipulates you.  Sergio G. Sánchez's screenplay is a little light, but it didn't need much to get the point across.  Sánchez also wrote The Orphange, so these two need to keep teaming up and making more movies.  It's interesting to note that the real survivor, María Belón, wrote the story.  Another thing I appreciated about the story is that while it focuses on the plight of the Belon's, you never lose sight of how it effected other people.  A few of the moments that moved me didn't even involve them.

The Impossible is emotionally exhausting, but uplifts you at the same time.  It reminds you to never give up hope, and of the will of people to survive.  I thank the film for also reminding me that I still have human emotions.  It's one of the best and most realistic disaster movies that I've ever seen, with impressive effects and even more impressive performances by the cast.  This is one of the best films of 2012, and I strongly recommend watching it.

The Impossible is in select theaters, but you can see it at The Vine in Livermore (www.vinecinema.com) if you live in the Bay Area.

4.5 (out of 5) Death Stars


  1. Good review Erik. The performances and Bayona's direction save this movie from being another obvious, melodramatic story of love and bravery prevailing. Still, I have no idea why the family couldn't have at least been Spanish, like they really were in real-life!

    1. That's marketing/Hollywood for you. It would have bugged me more if Belon hadn't wrote the story, and said she didn't have an issue with the casting.

    2. I really liked this movie! I really thought Naomi Watts should of won the Oscar for best actress.