Directed by: J.A. Bayona
Written by: Sergio G. Sánchez
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Johan Sundberg, and Geraldine Chaplin
Both Hollywood and audiences love a good, real-life tear-jerker. After all, it allows us to work out our pent-up emotions whilst plunking down our hard earned cash to see these intensely felt stories play out on the silver screen. This is the sentiment behind director J.A. Bayona’s tsunami of emotions, THE IMPOSSIBLE. While it does a fantastic job portraying the emotional and physical devastation from 2004’s tsunami in South East Asia, it also suffers from a few cuts and bruises due to the film’s trite, lazy, and maddening third act. When all is said and done, this film is visceral, thrilling, and heartbreaking – although not entirely for the right reasons.
We first meet British married couple Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their young children Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) en route to their Christmas getaway on one of Thailand’s luxurious beach resorts. Setting up each of their personalities (and the traits they’ll have to overcome in order to survive later), this is a well executed precursor to the harrowing horrors that await. Things are going perfectly at the Orchid resort until the day after Christmas, when a pressing (and frightening) powerful wave floods the shores – not just once but twice! Unrelenting terror kicks in when our hero family becomes separated. Lucas and a badly hurt Maria band together to seek help after being swept away by the current, and Henry and the young boys hang at the hotel until he decides to go look for Maria and Lucas.
THE IMPOSSIBLE’s script by Sergio G. Sánchez makes it impossible not to cry – or at the very least tear up – during the breathtaking and immersive second act. It puts viewers right in the epicenter of the tsunami. How do you go about finding your loved ones in a disaster? Would you take the same measures? Where does strength come from? Through the mouth of Geraldine Chaplin, death is explained in an elegant, non-condescending fashion. Brilliantly executed, Bayona and Sánchez find many moments of staggering beauty throughout much of the devastation. Whether it be toddler Daniel (Johan Sundberg), who represents the hope that can spring after complete ruin or a stranger’s kind act of handing over a cell phone to call home, it’s these tiny genuine moments that visually speak volumes – much more than any dialogue could ever do.
The film brims with standout performances from the entire cast – not just from leads Watts and McGregor. While they add the gravitas a piece like this needs, Holland is tasked with one of the most difficult jobs here. He equals his more seasoned co-stars’ determination and ferocity without ever being precocious or losing one beat with the audience. Sound design by Oriol Tarragó and his crew also plays a large part, as it’s the sound of the massive wave that makes us feel it to our core (and what notably starts us on our harrowing journey). Plus the visual and special effects departments earn a hat tip for adding the correlating visuals. Cinematography by Óscar Faura gives the film a polished, slick sheen that both complements and contrasts the narrative.
That’s why it’s so utterly disappointing that the third act stands in such jarring juxtaposition to what we’ve seen prior. Relying on a cheap flashback device manipulates viewers and insults their intelligence. We’ve already seen the nightmare of what happened to Maria, and we understand this will haunt her for the rest of her life; why must we experience it again?! Plus the film ends on a maddening note, as this rich, insured, white family leaves safely on a private jumbo jet, casually comptemplating the real losses of other less fortunate people. It seems very insincere. There’s also no post-script about how the real life family this film is based on is doing today, which also leaves viewers hanging.
THE IMPOSSIBLE is a testament to the human will, a force that can get us through even the most dire of circumstances. Unfortunately, it can’t overcome all insurmountable obstacles, such as third act contrivance.
THE IMPOSSIBLE played at AFI Fest on November 4 and 8 and opens on Christmas Day.