The Impossible ***1/2 (out of five)
A bravura piece of technical filmmaking, an above average piece of storytelling, beautifully acted, and relentless in its depiction of human misery and suffering, The Impossible is the film for you if you want possibly the most realistic, and therefore grueling, account of a real major natural disaster ever put on film.
Technical innovations such as CGI and incredible use of miniatures and water tanks, the ability to basically put the camera anywhere, and a quantum leap forward in the acting style of realism, means that The Impossible has the “you-are-there” edge – by a country mile – on past famous real-life disaster movies such as San Francisco (1936). Films depicting actual natural disasters are actually very rare; The Perfect Storm (2000) is one, but that film, like the countless films depicting invented natural disasters, is a character drama with a disaster. The Impossible is all about the disaster itself, although, to let the audience in, it tells the story of that disaster through the prism of one family.
What has come just as far since 1936 is the skill of make-up artists and the quality and dexterity of their materials, and it is here that The Impossible excels in making itself hard to watch. Rarely has bodily gore moved me so much. The injuries sustained by Maria (Naomi Watts) as she falls prey to the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, while holidaying with her family in Thailand, are horrific and deeply upsetting. The actress bravely spends the vast majority of the picture mangled, bloody, bruised, cut-up, bleeding and at times deeply infected as well. It’s grim, all the way.
Her family is beautifully performed by Ewan McGregor (really playing the supporting role here), a couple of very natural young boys called Samuel Johnson and Oaklee Pendergast, and, in the break-out part, ex-stage “Billy Elliot” Tom Holland, who has the most active part as the family’s eldest son, trying to keep things together in a world gone to hell.
The only film I can think of with a similar tone to The Impossible is Hotel Rwanda (2004), but even that had the feel of a thriller at times, running alongside its depiction of an enormously upsetting tragedy. The Impossible is just the tragedy – albeit with, obviously, moments of catharsis – and is thus, for its entirety, constantly upsetting. It’s fantastically made and full of noble intent, but you just might not be in the mood.