The Impossible Review: A Real Life Disaster Movie that is both Harrowing and Uplifting

Director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) worked closely with the real life matriarch of this story, Maria Belon, to recreate the events that her family suffered through while vacationing in the beach town of Khao Lak, Thailand.  The result: an unflinching, visceral depiction of the strength of family and the human spirit.

In 2004, an earthquake in the Indian Ocean led to a tsunami hitting the southern coast of Asia.  It is believed to be the deadliest tsunami in recorded history.  In The Impossible, a family is put to the ultimate test as they find themselves trapped in the middle of it all.

The movie begins as the Bennett family arrives at their luxurious vacation villa.  There’s mother Maria (Naomi Watts) and father Henry (Ewan McGregor), with their three sons Lucas, Simon and Thomas (Tom Holland, Oaklee Pendergast and Samuel Joslin).  For all the wreckage that ensues, its amazing how calm and alluring the opening scenes are.  The sun-kissed skin.  The bright colors of the seaside town.  The luminous paper lanterns that the family releases into the sky on Christmas Eve.  All of this is so beautiful, and yet so fleeting.

Soon the moment comes, and boy is it a doozy.  As the Bennetts splash around in the pool, they feel the ground begin to shake.  Maria rushes to grab a loose page that had fallen out of her book, and a worried look comes over her face.  Then, the unthinkable happens: A gargantuan wall of water descends upon the resort, devouring everything in its path.  Cinematographer Óscar Faura does a skillful job of making the tsunami look as real and terrifying as possible, showing the wave from the ground up as it rips through everything in sight.  In a matter of seconds everything is engulfed in water, and the Bennetts are torn apart.

The real horror, though, begins when members of the family come up for air.  Maria and her eldest son Lucas find themselves awash in the middle of a coursing river, separated from the rest of the family.  Having been thrown through a glass wall, Maria is badly injured and requires the help of her son to get to safety.  The rest of the film shows the family’s determined struggle to heal, to reunite, and to survive.

Though the movie doesn’t hold back when it comes to the portrayal of the mud-soaked, debris-ridden destruction that the tsunami caused, its real focus quickly shifts to the emotional expedition of the Bennetts.  Watts dives head-first into her role, turning in a masterful performance as a mother who has been made completely vulnerable, yet is still driven to move on.  When Maria first comes to, she holds on to a tree trunk for dear life.  Seeing her son’s head bobbing through the water, she immediately forgoes all thoughts of personal safety and rushes to his aid.

Equally as convincing is newcomer Holland, who gives Lucas a powerful sense of gravitas and affection when he becomes his mother’s protector.  At such a young age, Lucas has a whole lot thrown at him at once, and its incredible to see him not only help his own family, but the families of other lost souls as well.

McGregor also does a fine job, as his path takes him through several makeshift hospitals and help centers in search of his missing wife and son. It’s interesting, though, that a film that takes place in Thailand puts so much emphasis on the agony of the caucasian tourists.  Most of the country’s natives are put in the roles of caregivers and medical practitioners.  Surely there were thousands of Thailanders affected by the tsunami as well.  Moreover, it is somewhat strange that the Spanish-born Belons were translated into the white, British Bennett family. These grievances are minor, and possibly unintentional, but they did take me out of the world of the film for a bit.  Still, this is a story that transcends culture and ethnicity.  The Bennetts could very well have been a family of any background.  Their emotional courage would still remain the same.

The Impossible certainly has its fair share of heartwrenching, tearjerky moments, but its story is fundamentally a positive one.  It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that the Bennetts survive and are eventually reunited.  A quick Google search of the Belon family will show you that they are all still here to tell the tale.  This movie is much more about human nature in the face of disaster, and the bravery of those who will stop at nothing for the ones they love.  Watching the Bennetts successfully endure such a terrible tragedy is life-affirming.  If this family can go through hell and back, then anything is possible.  Grade: A-


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