Although it wasn’t the first film to deal with the 2004 Tsunami and it certainly won’t be the last, The Impossible was the first huge scale production to tackle the horrific event with a Hollywood sensibility. When it originally came out in 2012, a lot of people questioned if it was too soon and some called for a boycott due to its white-washing cast and tale that ignored the plight of Asian counties and their citizens. The Impossible though treads carefully and those that avoided it missed out on a remarkable true-life tale of a family on vacation surviving and come back together against all the odds.
The disasters faced
On Boxing Day 2004 the deadly Tsunami that claimed so many struck. On Ko Phi Phi Island a family are washed apart and must struggle to survive and find each other again. The film tackles this survival and the human disposition in finding your loved ones again.
The Impossible follows the true story of the Belón family, who were on holiday during the actual 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. Whilst it will deviate for dramatic effect, the main gist of the story remains intact as it follows the family trying to find each other and reunite in the carnage after. In the film, Maria and Henry (along with their three boys Lucas, Thomas and Simon) are separated during the tsunami itself. Initially, we follow Maria and Lucas as they struggle to survive and find a hospital to treat Maria’s grave wounds. Once they are helped by locals to the hospital, we switch to Henry, whom along with Thomas and Simon, has banded together with other tourist survivors to search for their loved ones. The film switches perspective between each group as the disaster relief effort kicks in. Will they all find each other again and what state will they be in if they do?
Why is it worth watching?
Firstly, the acting is of a very high standard. Naomi Watt’s pain is palpable throughout the movie and McGregor’s scenes as he rings home are heart-wrenching. What is strange is that they don’t actually share much screentime together pre-tsunami and so you spend most of your time projecting your own idea of a loving marriage onto them. When reunited later on though, that is when both their acting skills come to the fore as they run a gambit of emotions. Also a star is eldest child Tom Holland who matches everyone else toe for toe. The three of them carry the heart of the movie as they share the vast majority of the screen time. Although he’s not on-screen much, Samuel Joslin as young Thomas is utterly charming too.
The story has many beats to it and is cleverly told to keep you wondering how everyone will find each other. There are so many near misses and fake-outs and whilst I did find the ending ridiculously convenient, I didn’t hold it against the film. As the tsunami happens so early on, often films post-disaster can feel a bit of a strain if you aren’t emotionally invested or have enough things going on to keep the pace going. Here you have an excellent combo of the two. It certainly doesn’t feel like a two-hour film.
There are also some respectful nods of thanks to the inhabitants of Ko Phi Phi. They are often in the background but occasionally come to the fore to support. They had lost everything yet still wanted to help strangers where possible. The Belon family were on set and gave insight and advice throughout the shoot which must have been valuable and instrumental in making the film feel so realistic.
That then brings me lastly onto some of the cinematography. The tsunami itself is handled initially with a splash of Hollywood liberties but then transitions into something far scarier. The scenes of debris after are heartbreaking and there’s a certain dream sequence with Naomi watts that is really well put together too. You wouldn’t think such creativity would be well placed in a film like this but it works.
The Tsunami itself is technically impressive especially the section where Watts is being dragged across the Island. The sets and general carnage after is also very real – complete with lots of mass crowd scenes showing the disarray of the people left behind. The hospital set is vast and crammed with extras and feels like a character in itself – as does the island and the tsunami too.
Everyone comes across as a well mannered and all round nice person. The special cute award goes to Thomas (Samuel Joslin) who is everything you’d want from an inquisitive child with a hint of sass. As the film follows just this family, other characters fade into the periphery but I always wonder if Karl, the fellow tourist looking for his family was based on someone specific and if he found his family or not. The Impossible is intentionally narrow in its focus unlike the TV movie Tsunami: The Aftermath which follows many different journeys. It’s just as well everyone is nice!
‘It’s a beautiful mystery, isn’t it?’ Old Woman
Three memorable moments
- The tsunami itself. The whole section with Maria and Lucas is astounding.
- Henry’s phone call home.
- Thomas and Simon yelling and running towards their family with panic and joy.
The obligatory weird moment
This one is a blooper rather than a weird moment. Early in the film Maria and Lucas take care of a young boy called Daniel. When he is finally united with his father later on his father speaks to him in Sweedish. He actually says ‘How heavy are you Johan?!’ but that’s the actors’ name – not his character. Perhaps because they were real father and son they just got a bit carried away but how no one noticed I’m not sure!
The drinking game
So often in this film, someone just misses another character or they aren’t where they are meant to be. Take a swig when that happens.
Harrowing but narrow insight into the Tsunami. The Impossible is captivating from start to finish. Whilst I can appreciate that some may wonder why it was ever made at all, that does not take away from the amazing performances and sincerity that the film generally exudes. It treads a fine line and does so perfectly.
Rating: 5/5 – A favourite / personal recommendation
If you liked The Impossible then you may like…
- Tsunami: Caught on Camera – a chronological survivor footage documentary
- The Wave (Bolgen) – a big budget Norweign disaster of a tsunami in a remote town
- Haeundae – A big budget Korean tsunami movie
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*review updated 13/04/19 to meet new review format.