On December 26th 2004, a tsunami hits all the neighboring countries and continents in the Indian Ocean. With a death toll of over 220,000, it is considered the 6th worst natural disaster in recorded history. One of the 14 countries hit by the tsunami was Thailand which just so happens to be the focal point of director Juan Antonio Bayona's new film, "The Impossible". Just before the disaster occurs we follow the Belon family, which consists of husband and wife Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) along with their three boys, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) who are vacationing for the holidays. When that fateful day arrives, the Belon family along with thousands of other victims find themselves blindsided by the catastrophic tsunami. Soon after the water has settled they quickly realize that surviving the disastrous event was just the beginning of their perilous journey as they struggle to reunite with each other during the wake of the chaotic landscape not knowing if each other is even still alive.
True stories are a tough sell anymore. With everyone plugged into the internet, all it takes is a quick shot over to wikipedia to check the facts (and even then wiki isn't all that reliable). But regardless, the public likes to stay informed and wants to know if and when they are being duped into thinking something they are told happened actually occurred, especially with how loosely the phrase, "Based on (or Inspired by) a True Story". The latest victim of this is Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" where not only has it stirred up controversy over tactics used by our military to secure the location of Osama Bin Laden, but almost no one in their right mind believes one single woman was responsible for doing all the research and spear heading the investigation for over ten years. Now, while "The Impossible" is most certainly based on a factual event, the family we follow isn't free from the same scrutiny. Regardless of what is fact and was is fiction however, there is no denying the powerful filmmaking at work and the incredible performances given by the entire cast that help provide a glimpse of the terror and confusion experienced by the tens of thousands of victims of that devastating tsunami 8 years ago.
We will get back to the truth of the matter a little later, the first topic that needs to be explored is the decision to show this monumental catastrophe from the perspective of a singular family unit instead of an all encompassing story about how it effected all the outlining countries around the Indian Ocean. As mentioned, this tsunami hit over 14 different countries ranging from India, to Sweden and even all the way to South Africa, but the film focuses squarely on Thailand. Unless you go in already informed, watching the film you would be hard pressed to know how wide spread this disaster actually was. It's not that we don't get to see the effects this incident had on the masses (we see plenty of hospitals filled beyond capacity, wounded and lost children and/or parents and some very impressive recreations of the desolation in the wake of the tsunami).
The issue lies in how we never get any information about the other regions that were hit. Sure, we follow this one family and perhaps if they didn't know at the time maybe we shouldn't either. But in reality this is a movie and movies are engineered to do one of (or hopefully) two things, to entertain and to inform. Where "The Impossible" drops the ball slightly is that it lacks the information to inform the audience of the true impact this disaster had on the world, which begs the question of whether or not the film marginalizes the event and all its victims?
The answer to that question is a qualified no thankfully. It's no simply because for the lack of imparting to viewer the true scale of the disaster, it makes up for it with a terrifyingly real depiction of what it must have been like to be involved in such a horrific situation. The confusion and grief experienced by thousands is in the background, but it isn't forgotten and even comes to the forefront from time to time. Also by giving us the point of view of only a handful of characters, it gives us a narrative flow, something to hold on to from start to finish and characters we can grow to care about. While it's true that we could care about an ensemble cast of characters, the decision to focus on the Belon family gives the film that visceral punch needed to have even a slight idea as to the heartache and pain these people must have suffered.
The actors are all top notch across the board as well. Both McGregor and Watts give career high performances that will tug at your heartstrings and somehow avoid the pitfalls of coming off as being overly manipulative in the process (there is only one manufactured sequence built to create tension but it is over before you know it). But they are skilled and well seasoned actors whom we have come to expect such quality from, the real magic that director Bayona pulls off is the child actors he cast. Child actors are often a wild card, they are usually fine but the more screen time they have the more chances they have to derail the entire film due to a lack of experience. The two younger kids, around the ages of 4 and 7 respectively, don't have a lot of time on their own but do have a handful of key scenes that they pretty much nail. But the real standout is the older son Lucas.
Tom Holland steals the show from everyone, even the adult actors. Sharing most of the film with Naomi Watts, the young actor certainly had his work cut out for him and he delivered one of the best performances of the year by any actor. Simply avoiding being annoying is easy enough, but to go through the level and sheer amount of emotional breakthroughs that he does by the end of the film is awe inspiring. He certainly had more screen time than any other actor in the film and single handedly supported the film for most of it. Watching Holland perform here is akin to seeing a young Christian Bale in Steven Spielberg's classic WWII drama "The Empire of the Sun". You know you are seeing a kid with extreme talent in front of the camera and you know that this isn't the last time you will be seeing him.
With the actors all on board to help sell this tragic moment in history, it was then up to Bayona and his film crew to sell us on the disaster itself. This isn't quite as easily accomplished as many might think. Hollywood is guilty on more than one occasion for taking disasters and glorifying them, playing up the spectacle more so than the human drama. That is all fine for sensationalized disaster movies like "2012", "The Day After Tomorrow" or any Syfy movie of the week, but when dealing with an event that really happened that effected so many lives, it needs to be handled more delicately. When the tsunami does finally hit (which happens about 15 to 20 minutes in) it is impressively destructive. Like the rest of the film, we see it from the perspective of the Belon family when it hits their beach front resort. We see it sweep in within a matter of seconds and destroy everything in its path without mercy. For a film on a shoestring budget compared to other films of this sort, the effects work during this sequence is without equal.
After a fade to black the ensuing chaos with Maria and Lucas who are being swept away along with cars, trees and houses showcases how remarkably violent the situation was and doesn't sugar coat anything. After seeing tsunami's and all manner of floods depicted on screen before, never until now was there a realization of how intensely dangerous it actually is. Watching Maria and Lucas get tossed around, sucked under and collide with all sorts of debris is the stuff nightmares are made of and you will likely be gripping the arm rests of your seat during the entire scene without even knowing it. Somehow Bayona hit that sweet spot, the tsunami is harrowing but it never feels over blown or there to tantalize, it is there to inform and it succeeds magnificently.
As for how true this story of the Belon family actually is? That is anyone's guess since there are no real records of their story before this. You can surmise that there was certainly some dramatization going on (the aforementioned scene used to build tension) and the fact that the picture we see of the real life Belon family at the end of the film shows a Hispanic family even though the family in the film are portrayed as English, but in the end none of that really hurts the film. Yes it would have been nice to have a clearer vision of the devastation of the disaster outside of Thailand but the film is such a triumph in every other category that it doesn't really matter all that much all things considered.
Bayona made a conscious choice to follow a single group of characters during this epic travesty and it works, it works extremely well. By casting two reliable veteran actors and a star making performance by the young Tom Holland, he succeeded in paying respect to all the men, women and children that lost their lives or loved ones on that tragic day and he did it with great ease. If you wish to learn more about the event itself then there are likely plenty of documentaries and published books or articles to satisfy your yearning to learn more. But as first hand accounts go, you will not find a more emotionally gripping and well executed recreation of the events of December 26th, 2004 than the film "The Impossible".