The Impossible is powerful, touching, and life-affirming – a film that thoroughly restores one’s faith in all that’s good and decent in the world. In an age of cynicism, broken dreams, and disillusionment, I would say that it could not have come at a better time. I hesitate to categorize it as a disaster film, despite the fact that it’s set against the backdrop of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Say the word “disaster” in a cinematic context, and the films of Irwin Allen or Roland Emmerich immediately come to mind, films in which widespread, cataclysmic destruction is depicted not as an cataclysmic tragedy but as a glorious and visually spectacular display of special effects. This is not a summer popcorn flick. It’s a heartfelt drama in which the filmmakers bother to humanize the characters. It’s also one of the year’s best films.
It dramatizes the true story of a Spanish family – a husband, wife, and three children – who, while vacationing in Thailand in late December, 2004, miraculously survived the tsunami that decimated the coastal areas of Southeast Asia. For the purposes of the film, director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez change the family’s nationality from Spanish to British; we have the father, Henry (Ewan McGregor), the wife, Maria (Naomi Watts), and the three boys, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). There isn’t much time between the opening title cards and the tsunami, and yet we learn pretty much everything we need to know about this family, most importantly that, while not perfect, they are a functional, loving unit.
Unlike a typical disaster film, in which we gawk at the CG-laden death and destruction with silly grins on our faces, the tsunami in The Impossible is indisputably terrifying. Yes, special effects are utilized, but the focus is the human toll rather than the destruction. It strikes when the entire family lounges in the pool area of a luxury hotel; the immense wall of water separates the family and scatters them around the coastal village. Maria and Lucas, the oldest son, manage to find each other even as they’re being swept away. Maria is badly injured, her thigh gashed open and her chest punctured by debris. They both manage to crawl out of the water, and this is the point at which Lucas, once a moody adolescent, begins a crash course in selflessness. It begins when he helps both his mother and an unknown blonde boy no older than three climb a up a tree to safety. He then takes a random can of soda, opens it, and willingly shares it.
Some time later, they’re all rescued by a group of villagers. Despite an obvious language barrier, they see that Maria is injured, and they do whatever they can to make her comfortable before having both her and Lucas transported to a now overcrowded and understaffed hospital. We see the usual chaos and confusion, the mostly foreign patients desperate to know the whereabouts of their family members, the overwhelmed doctors and nurses scrambling around, the misinformation and complete lack of any information. We see Lucas sitting by his mother’s side as she’s being treated for severe punctures and a dramatic loss of blood. We also see him go around the hospital, take down the names of the missing people patients are looking for, and then wander the halls and wards calling out those names. The entire time, the whereabouts of the rest of his family weighs heavily on him. He doesn’t even know if they’re still alive.
But they are. Henry, who has both Thomas and Simon with him, is on a desperate search of his own for Maria and Lucas. The situation becomes even more desperate when he’s forced to separate from his boys, who are both place in the bed of a pickup truck and eventually placed on a bus full of children. There’s an amazingly well-paced, well-edited scene in which Henry winds up in the same hospital as Lucas and Maria yet is unaware either of them are there; both Henry and Lucas wander the halls, missing each other by mere seconds. The single most heart-pounding moment comes when Henry passes Maria’s cot, which is concealed by a curtain. Neither husband nor wife know that they’re within arm’s reach, and yet Maria stares at the silhouette on the curtain, perhaps in recognition.
It made my heart glad to see this movie. It shows humanity at its best. It’s not about brutal Darwinian survival; it’s about people actually helping each other. It doesn’t encourage blind optimism, but it does give audiences a reason to hold onto hope, for seemingly impossible things can and do happen, even in extreme situations. At the same time, it sends a powerful message, namely that, if you end up as lucky as both the family in The Impossible and its real-life inspiration, you should never take anything for granted ever again. This particular story has a happy ending, but many others connected to the Indian Ocean tsunami do not. I’d like to believe that both the real and fictional families have kept this in mind as they go about their lives. Perhaps the rest of us can learn a thing or two from them.