THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
My fear in reviewing The Impossible is that, in telling you what's so special about it, I'll make you not want to see it. On the surface, the movie sounds unpleasant, like the kind of thing that will make you nuts. Well, it will make you nuts. This is one of the most gut-wrenching and emotional pictures I've ever seen. I walked away from it physically exhausted. Unpleasant would not be an appropriate descriptor, though. The Impossible is enormously life-affirming; you just have to go through a lot of tragedy to get there. Incidentally, this is a true story.
Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry Bennet, a married couple spending Christmas vacation with their three sons at a Thailand resort. While lounging around the pool, a tsunami abruptly strikes, sweeping them – and thousands of other helpless victims – away. Maria and son Lucas (Tom Holland) manage to hold onto one another as the rushing waters carry them off, debris violently striking them. Eventually they reach dry land. Filthy, bruised, and bloodied, they make their way to a medical facility where Maria is treated for life-threatening injuries. Lucas tries to stay by his mother's side at a chaotic, confusing makeshift hospital, while still keeping his eyes open for his father and brothers, unsure if they are alive or dead. Since the true story was well-publicized in the media, it is no spoiler to tell you that Henry and the other boys survive too. Henry also begins looking amid the rubble in an attempt to reunite his family.
In recent years, we've become accustomed to seeing natural disasters depicted in movies. Such scenes are generally staged for excitement and, as such, bear little resemblance to reality. (Remember that scene in 2012 where a giant wave smashed an aircraft carrier into the White House?) The Impossible stages its disaster with absolute authenticity, and the result is harrowing. The 10-minute tsunami sequence captures the horror of a wall of water coming out of nowhere to wreck buildings and pound everyone in its path. As Maria is washed away, she's repeatedly sucked under the surface, the wave's motion disorienting her. She and Lucas are slammed into structures that have somehow been left standing. They float past the bodies of those who didn't survive the impact. They are helpless. Director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) puts you right there, as though you're being swept away alongside them. It makes your jaw drop to realize human beings actually went through this. The special effects team has done a superb job in making everything look completely real. Not once does it ever look like CGI, nor does it ever tip over into the realm of exaggeration for the sake of excitement. You'll not see a more vivid, terrifying disaster scene in any other motion picture.
What happens afterward is just as intense, as Maria and Lucas get lost in the scramble of improvised red tape. Unprepared for a tragedy of this magnitude, the officials herd survivors off left and right, with little sense that there's a plan to help everyone. Staying side-by-side proves a challenge. Henry and the younger boys don't have it any easier, getting conflicting reports of where to go and where other survivors might be. A big part of what makes The Impossible so affecting is that none of the Bennets ever completely lose hope. Despite the poor odds, they hold onto the belief that the others might be out there somewhere. They keep searching.
Aside from the ceaseless, riveting realism of the plot, the movie is made by performances that are nothing short of brilliant. Naomi Watts, as I've said repeatedly, is my favorite working actress. She's fearless, willing to do whatever a role requires, with no sense of vanity. As Maria Bennet, Watts is required to project near-constant terror, grief, and anguish. She doesn't just play those emotions, she embodies them. The actress is a special effect in her own right, convincing you of the emotional devastation the tsunami wreaked on its victims. Ewan McGregor is great as well. He gets a powerful, tear-inducing moment in which Henry borrows a cell phone to call home and promptly has the enormity of his situation hit him. Newcomer Tom Holland, meanwhile, makes an enormous impact as Lucas, who quietly fears what will happen if he ends up the only family member left alive after the tragedy. Holland's turn is heartbreakingly subtle.
In the end, The Impossible proves to be about more than survival. It is also a film about gratitude. The final two minutes find a poignant, effective way of bringing closure to this family's inspirational story while still acknowledging the terrible loss of life in Thailand. Not everyone was as fortunate as the Bennets, and they know it. As you can doubtlessly tell by now, this is a movie that rattles you deeply. It's worth it in the end, though, because The Impossible has an incredible, uplifting message: the impossible is sometimes quite possible, and that is the very definition of a miracle.
( out of four)
The Impossible is rated PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity. The running time is 1 hour and 54 minutes.
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