AFI Fest- The Impossible, by Scott Nye
A happy, affluent family arrives at a paradisiacal location, whereupon a too-cheerful resident welcomes them to and expounds upon the various amenities, both natural and man-made. He tells them that although the space they had requested was unavailable, they will likely be more than satisfied with the new accommodations, and indeed they are. This is a place in which nothing can go wrong, yet the camera, presenting all of this to the audience, insists there is some force beyond man’s control lurking, waiting to wreck them. That this is an encapsulation of the opening of The Impossible, and also a description for hundreds of horror films, goes a long way towards explaining everything that director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) brings to the story of one family’s experience in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Unfortunately, much of his heft stops there.
The foreboding of the opening, all the way through the Tsunami itself, is stunning disaster-movie filmmaking. It’s visceral, ugly, seat-grippingly intense, and terrifying in a way no supernatural tale could ever be. Maria (Naomi Watts) and her son, Lucas (newcomer Tom Holland), quickly find each other amidst the flooding, even as they’re swept toward and apart from one another by the roaring water. Bayona quickly asserts the physical danger, as we see everything from tables and chairs to trees and car rushing at differing speeds past our protagonists, causing us concern not only for those threats, but also whatever is underneath the surface (the possibilities of which are quickly explored). Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez (who also, along with most of the crew, worked with Bayona on The Orphanage) also use this as a character opportunity, establishing immediately that Maria and Lucas aren’t likely to give up on one another.
But what of the rest of their family? Whither Henry (Ewan McGregor) and the other two boys? Whither indeed. While Maria and Lucas’ story encompasses the most interesting aspects of a disaster and its aftermath – the physical toll itself, the immediate quest for survival, and the confusing bureaucracy of emergency management – Henry’s fate is so much less interesting, amounting to one solid scene and, eventually, very cheap (and worse, repetitive) suspense moments. The film would undoubtedly be a different one had it chosen to focus solely on Maria and Lucas, but it does not exactly know how to make its case for the one it is. Bayona keeps a clear eye on the material, but needed to elevate it.
The best, consistent elements of the film are Watts’ and Holland’s performances. He is tasked with the emotional component, and has a command over the film rare in child performances (reminded me a lot of Christian Bale in Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun). Lucas never quite has a total grasp of the situation in which he’s been placed, but as soon as he finds a foothold, the mountain is his. Watts, meanwhile, has to do so much physically-intensive acting, one is tempted to look away as Bayona piles on the body horror. One scene in which she has to purge an infection of some kind (walking around in a swamp with gaping wounds invites these sorts of things) is easily the most off-putting thing I’ve seen in a mainstream film. She’s given more than enough moments to build a real character beyond her ailments, but it is for those ailments her performance will be remembered.
Unfortunately, once the film strays from these two, it can’t stop, and our anchor is quickly whisked in search of other, less compelling shores. While The Impossible is ultimately a fairly solid movie, and its better parts are so good that I’ll be recommending it to those who can stomach it, I can’t help but feel let down by how small and cheap it eventually becomes. Come for the opening, stay if you’d like.