Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review: "The Impossible"

“The Impossible” is an impressive and deeply troubling picture, both for intentional and unintentional reasons.

As a harrowing depiction of the 2004 tsunami that swept over much of southeast Asia, it’s a top-drawer portrait of humans struggling to survive and help one another. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are brilliant as parents whose family is sundered by the massive tidal wave hitting their Thai beach resort, each valiantly struggling to keep their sons alive while not knowing if the other is dead or not.

I do question the filmmakers’ purposes in choosing to focus on the plight of five Westerners amidst a disaster that claimed more than 230,000 lives – most of those native people, and with only a small sliver of the victims in Thailand. The tale is based on a real Spanish family, but director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez – both Spaniards – choose to make the people British.

The answers to those sorts of questions are not hard to guess. People from English-speaking countries are more likely to identify with the plight their own, rather than a bunch of brown folks yammering in another language. It's understandable, since it’s an effective storytelling device that makes the main characters more identifiable with their target audience.

In focusing on how the disaster impacted a bunch of well-to-do Europeans, though, the filmmakers simultaneously make the horror more immediate and decouple the audience from its broader impacts.

Still, these sorts of concerns to not present themselves during the film, which unfolds with a riveting portrayal of the tidal wave and immediate aftermath. Terrific computer-generated effects bring the colossal onslaught of the tsunami right into our faces.

Maria (Watts) is a doctor who’s not currently practicing, while Henry (McGregor) is an engineer for a Japanese company. Their base is Tokyo, but they’ve adopted a jet-setting lifestyle that has grown comfortable to them.

Certainly their three boys seem to be typical lads. Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), 5, and 7-year-old Thomas (Samuel Joslin) are scrappy and stubborn. The eldest, Lucas (a marvelous Tom Holland), is about 12 and in full-blown preteen rebellion mode.

But when Lucas and Maria are separated from the rest of the family and she is seriously injured, he’s forced to grow up fast. As a doctor, she knows how badly she needs medical help, which only amplifies her plight. Watching the power balance shift, as son gradually becomes caretaker to mother, is the film’s high point.

Henry is a passive type, not your prototypical alpha-male movie hero. But his determination to see his entire family reunited is a sight to behold. Even when the survivors from their hotel are being shipped to safer ground, he stays behind to continue the search. Lacking even a shirt or shoes – they were swimming in the pool when the wave hit – Henry sets off bravely like a knight on a noble, if seemingly fruitless search.

“The Impossible” exists on only a single level of emotion and peril. The characters aren’t really defined other than by their reaction to a deadly challenge. But watching them rise to it is a compelling journey, as their incredible experience stands in for many others who did not make it to tell their tale.

3.5 stars out of four

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