September 11, 2012




THE IMPOSSIBLE – Worth A Ticket – A Tsunami Film With Both Spectacle and Emotion

Director Juan Antonio Bayona has done a spectacular job of re-creating the 2004 Asian tsunami in THE IMPOSSIBLE. Staged mostly in studio tanks with added CG imagery, the 10-minute long sequence puts Clint Eastwood’s version of the disaster in Hereafter far in the shade, creating an utterly believable illusion of what it was like to actually experience the tidal wave.

The disaster affected millions, of course, but The Impossible keeps its focus very tight, almost entirely on one particular family of British tourists.  (Actually the film’s characters are based on a Spanish family’s true story, and in any case give rise to the age-old issue of Hollywood taking a story about a storm that mostly decimated Asians and placing Europeans at its center–but as Bayona candidly admitted in his Toronto Q&A, it’s a lot easier to get $50M in financing for a movie that stars westerners.)  The Bennets–mother Maria (Naomi Watts), father Henry (Ewan McGregor), and sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin)–have recently arrived at a Thai beach resort for Christmas holiday, when on December 26, the storm causes horrific devastation.  Maria and Lucas are separated from Henry, Simon and Thomas, and for most of the movie’s opening half, we follow the first pair.

These sequences, of the tsunami itself and mother and son attempting to survive, are the core of the movie, and contain remarkable imagery (the cinemtography is by Oscar Faura, who also shot Barona’s The Orphanage, and the spectacular production design is by Eugenio Cabellero) and extraordinary, completely convincing performances by Watts and Holland.  When Maria is injured and taken to a hospital overflowing with the injured, and Lucas has to keep watch on his mother while attempting to reunite relatives who are at opposite ends of the huge place, teeming with suffering, the sequence is overwhelming.

The Impossible can’t really top that section of its story, and when it stops an hour in to go back and show us what’s happened to Henry, Simon and Thomas, it loses some momentum.  The latter half of the movie is concerned with the convolutions through which the family is reunited, and although based on a true story, it has the feel of a nightmare version of the kind of tale every family has about not finding each other in a mall because everyone was walking into the wrong store at the wrong time.  An earlier scene in which a minor character is reunited with his father has more impact than the movie’s climax, which makes it feel out of kilter.  Sergio Sanchez’s script is far better when it concentrates on real-life details than when it indulges in occasional philosophizing, as when Geraldine Chaplin pops up for a single scene to tell the boys about the stars above them.

In his Q&A, Bayona said it was deliberate choice to tell a story about a family saved and reunited strictly because of luck, without any particular heroism on its part, in order to make clear that they were no better than all those who died, and while that makes thematic sense, it deprives the story of Hollywood-type high points.  Yet despite some resulting dramatic thinness, there’s no denying the raw power and artistry of the film’s depiction of the disaster itself and the journey of mother and son.  Watts will surely be in the Oscar conversation for her performance, and Holland deserves to be too.  Along with the photography and production design, the film’s superb sound design should also be noted.  The film provides both the vicarious experience of a titanic event and well-earned tears, and that’s a combination not to be underrated at Oscar time.

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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."