Disaster movies are more than often treated as giant spectacles made to show off groundbreaking special effects and large star-studded casts. When people think of a disaster movie, I would assume that images of “The Day After Tomorrow,” “2012,” and “The Poseidon Adventure” are the first that come to mind. The recent, Oscar-nominated film, “The Impossible,” provides a counterpoint to those massive productions, favoring the intimacy of a single family over creating an ensemble of megastars.
The year is 2004, and the Bennett family is trying to spend their Christmas vacation at a tropical resort in Thailand. However, while enjoying a day at the pool, a massive tsunami sweeps over the area, splitting mother Maria and son Lucas from father Henry and younger sons Thomas and Simon. In the aftermath of the tsunami, Maria and Lucas try to help some people along the way while Henry searches for them amongst the crowds and wreckage.
As you may have gathered, “The Impossible” uses the real life Thailand tsunami as its backdrop, and in fact the central family here is based on a real one that was vacationing. Qualms over the whitewashing of them in the film (the real family is Spanish) are certainly understandable, but the harrowing performances by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor work hard to forgive that creative decision. With the painful ordeals that Maria goes through, it is no surprise that Watts has been nominated for the Best Actress Oscar, and her chemistry with first-time actor Tom Holland carries the first half of the film. Despite being only 16 years old, Holland nearly steals the film from his seasoned co-stars as Lucas learns the importance of human connections over the course of the film.
Speaking of those painful ordeals, this is a disaster that doesn’t shy away from the little details that many forget to show. In a less distinguished film, the tsunami may have been shown as just a sweeping wave of destruction in wide shots, but director J.A. Bayona (“The Orphanage”) blends those with up-close-and-personal moments that will have some viewers cringing. A tsunami is not merely a wave of water, and will carry along anything it has hit previously such as branches, glass, and other sharp objects, meaning our protagonists do not walk away unscathed. The lack of extras diminishes the horror and scale of the main flood sequence, however I appreciate Bayona’s commitment to using practical effects whenever possible.
The film just about makes up for this by showing the enormity of the impact that the tsunami had on the residents and other vacationers. The family may have survived together (hard to spoil a true story), and yet the film does not forget the countless numbers of other families that were less fortunate. The story of one father that Henry comes across has a bittersweet vibe as he helps Henry locate his family, but at the same time is no closer to finding his own. This is counterbalanced by a subplot of Lucas bringing a father and son back together, showing that there is hope around all the distress.
As a film of this type, there are inevitably many scenes that try to work the tear ducts, and this film was less overwrought with those than most others although their was one particular sequence that felt too contrived. It is a classic case of camera positioning where characters looking for each other pass by without noticing them, and at first it works wonders at boiling your anxiety. But a couple of the character’s actions felt forced just to keep the scenario going, and it stood out after the more natural and reserved previous 90 minutes.
Even with those caveats, “The Impossible” is ultimately a better than average disaster film that does not resort to the preposterous and overblown idiocy that is usually associated with these films. I appreciated this immensely, and the raw, affecting performances from Watts, McGregor, and Holland are worth the price of admission alone. Compared to the buzz on many of the other Oscar-nominated films, “The Impossible” has been going under the radar, but it is worth checking out just like the rest of them.