Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as the parents of a family on Christmas vacation in Thailand in 2004, which was a tremendously bad time to be traveling in Thailand. When a tsunami strikes unexpectedly, the family is ripped apart with no way of knowing if the others are alive, knowing only that they must get to safety. Maria (Naomi Watts) is badly hurt, and she and her son Lucas (Tom Holland) trek through water and devastation for hours, days, without knowing the extent of the disaster, or if the rest of the family, Henry (McGregor) and Lucas’ two brothers (Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast) are alive, braving darkness and destruction, hospitals and chaos, all striving to find one another against all odds.
Disaster films are terrifying, especially ones on the scale and magnitude of The Impossible that hold nothing back in their attempt to recreate the experience. The tsunami that sweeps across the country and rips their family apart is breathtaking and terrifying in its power, sweep and grandeur. This film is not for the squeamish, as we’re given a first person experience of the initial wave, the following torrential flooding and total devastation and it is difficult to experience, even in cinematic form. Even more palpable is the hopelessness of their task, to find a few solitary people amidst tens of thousands of bodies and teeming hospitals.
The mechanics of the film are outstanding at all times, the realism of the tsunami and flooding, the cinematography that captures every speck of dirt and water, and the performances are no less impressive, particularly the exhausting work of McGregor, dazed and confused without a clear course of action, and Watts, who treads the line between fear and despair, and remaining strong for those around her. Tom Holland deserves special recognition for his work as Lucas, so young and brave in an unfamiliar and impossible situation. The film never sinks into petty voyeurism or sensationalism, but instead works continuously towards realism. Though it slips at time into almost melodrama, it is based on a true story which forgives many of the smaller gaffs.
The film is sly, very canny in making you feel things you may not have expected. I found my single self thinking about how nice it might be to have a family of my own, a desire unfamiliar to me most of the time. As they struggled together and fought for survival, it suddenly seemed less terrible and more inviting than I had remembered. You start doing the math on how old you’ll be if you have a baby at a certain stage, how old you’ll be if you get married at a certain point, and these are dangerous mathematical equations, pitting you against and unknowable future. I do not envy the lives of those around me who have chosen to have children, by and large it seems a sleep-deprived, messy affair that takes your humanity from you in incremental stages. But in the quieter moments of The Impossible, it didn’t seem so bad to have this integrated support system, this team of people to belong to, you and yours.
The remarkable thing is the clarifying tunnel vision that comes with such an event. Things are bad, surely, but they’re not as bad as being separated from your potentially dead loved ones in a foreign country in the midst of a natural disaster. If you’re feeling cynical or bitter, Impossible has a way of lifting that from you. Gone are the petty jealousies or childish misbehavior, as fear of loss cuts to the core of who we are. The love the family shares runs deep, and their return to the basics of life is immediate. To love and to be loved, to need and to be needed, to give and to be given. There’s something humbling about watching such private moments of sadness and joy, something that calls to us from a higher plane, reminding us of our own petty jealousies and childish misbehavior, asking us to relent and release our grudges and hatreds in the face of stunning realization.
Note to those who like to experience films for themselves: The trailers for this one ruined the plot by mashing together every key action oriented scene with that terrible U2 song “One Love,” so try to avoid it if you can. Just know that the film will be brutal and wrenching, like breaking a bone, but the resolution is as relieving and strong as a broken bone healed over and ready for use.