If you need an object lesson in how to set up characters, dynamics, and story structure quickly and efficiently without using an awkward info-dump, look no further than the opening scene of The Impossible. As the plane carrying the Bennett family descends into Thailand, Henry (Ewan MacGregor) frets about where they set the alarm back home; when the plane hits a pocket of turbulence, Maria (Naomi Watts) jumps and grips her armrest. He worries about abstract, extended problems while she worries about immediate, physical dangers. Their middle son, Thomas (Samuel Joslin), comes forward seeking parental guidance and takes his mother’s seat alongside Henry and the passive five-year-old Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) as Maria goes back to sit with their eldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), entering his adolescence with bouts of sullen anger.
The family is traveling from Japan, where Henry works and Maria raises the children on an extended hiatus from her career as a doctor. They’re staying in a resort in Khao Lak for the holidays, arriving on Christmas Eve. It’s 2004, and in two days the devastating Boxing Day tsunami will hit and all but literally wipe the cove off the map.
The film is brutal, and it will test the emotional endurance of many audience members. But it’s necessarily, cathartically brutal. Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona constantly finds new ways to emphasize the sheer scale of the disaster. Actors vanish into landscapes of devastation, or an enormous refugee camp outside a hospital. Rows and rows and rows of bodies fill the screen. And then there are the shots of the water itself. The technical wherewithal to reconstruct some of these scenes, even where it’s possible to do it with miniatures, is stunning. And this is all contained within one small region; expanding it to the whole of the affected area is incomprehensible.
This is not to say that there are no flaws. The most glaring example is the fact that Sergio Sánchez adapted his screenplay from the actual experiences of the Spanish Belon family, but someone seems to have decided that it would sell better with a bunch of photogenic Britons. Even ignoring that, the dialogue has more than its share of clunky lines, and Fernando Velázquez’ score is far from subtle as it cues our reactions.
But these are only minor distractions from the wonder of the film. The ever-present trauma is shot through with small respites, as when some family recovers one of their own, or when Simon and Thomas observe the stars with another shelter refugee. Even the tsunami itself has a sort of terrible beauty, especially in one gorgeously impressionistic sequence near the end.
No one can be blamed for passing on The Impossible; no one can be asked to put themselves through even watching a slice of something like this. But those who do watch will find that Bayona presents a powerful, moving tribute to those who endured the tsunami in person, and to those who came together to survive afterwards.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.