The Impossible has an unfortunate title. When I first saw it, I was immediately reminded of a quote from Star Trek via Spock, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” I have since learned that Spock gleaned this gem from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but that is not where the title of this film comes from. Halfway through the film, two characters look at the stars in the sky. Some stars shine brightly for all to see. Some stars are long dead, and only now is their light reaching us. “Is there a way to tell which stars are dead and which aren’t?” a character asks. “No, that’s impossible,” the other replies. So it is with the people and bodies currently lost in the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.
The Impossible is a Spanish production that reunites the principal crew-members of the acclaimed film The Orphanage (2007). It is based on the true story of the Belón family and their struggle to survive during the tsunami. The words “true story” linger longer than the others. Unworldly sounds play over the images and continue throughout the film. It is unfair to call these sounds unworldly, as they are the sounds of the world we inhabit. They are not sinister or of impending doom. They are of a fate that constantly surrounds us. This story could have easily been about a family that survives a plane crash, or family that survives a terminal illness, or a family that somehow pulls together to survive a bout of terrible food poisoning. I don’t mean to be slight, but the idea here is that life is momentary, life is fleeting, and we should all be thankful when it doesn’t end, no matter the how.
The family in question is British (presumably for the purpose of international marketing), and we know a little about their background. Maria (Naomi Watts) is a doctor who has taken some time off to raise their three children, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). Henry (Ewan McGregor) has them all stationed in Japan for his job, but maybe a change and a move might be in their future. The kids don’t get along as well as Maria, or any mother, wishes they would. Maria and Henry love each other, but there is a glimpse that maybe Maria is bored and unhappy with the situation. None of this matters the second a wall of water and debris crashes over their resort. Everything seems so important, so necessary, and then tragedy strikes, and suddenly nothing outside of survival is worth a second thought.
The family survives, they struggle to stay alive, and through impossible odds, they are reunited. This is not a typical Hollywood happy ending. This is a moment graced by god. Occasionally things happen in real life that could only happen in the movies. There is no point in trying to give a summation of what they have to go through and what is required of a spirit to survive, let’s just say that it’s tough. The number of times I have left a movie theater to answer the call of nature, to walk out, to do anything other than watch, I can count on one hand. It was one hour into The Impossible before I was overtaken by the images. It was too much, and I felt myself growing cold and light-headed. I stepped out of the theater, drank some water, went to the bathroom, repeated a mantra to myself, “It’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.” For me, it was only a movie, but for the family, this film was based on, and countless others, it was not a movie you could step outside of. It was hell on Earth, and somehow they survived it.
The Impossible is one of the best films from last year. It holds remarkable power and is something to be reckoned with. It has been two days since I have seen the film, and certain images still haunt me and send shivers down my spine. Thinking of the events in the film, I am reminded of a book I read several years ago, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Harold S. Kushner. In this excellent book on coping with loss and tragedy, the good Rabbi differentiates between an Act of God and an Act of Nature. The tsunami is an Act of Nature, and nature is entirely indifferent to the plight of man. However, there is still grace to be found within such tragedy. There is a moment that will no doubt go on to define the film, and it is an image of bodies sinking in the water as one, Maria, rises to the surface. Her hand splits the surface, she comes up gasping for air, and she will survive. She will find her son, she will be reunited with her husband and two other sons, and all five of them will leave Thailand and carry on. As the plane departs, Maria turns her head to the window and weeps. Outside she can see the wreckage of the tsunami, the carnage, and the bodies of those who did not survive.
The performances are the best part of this film. Tom Holland as Lucas is excellent and does a wonderful job as he tries to act tougher than he really is to keep his mother going. McGregor gives a very honest and human performance, and all the supporting players do an excellent job populating this ravaged world. But it is Naomi Watts that does the heavy lifting. Maria is the one damaged the most by the tsunami and has to work the hardest to survive it, and Watts portrays her with bravery and determination. There is a look in her eyes as she trudges through the carnage, slightly dead, but determined, she must continue on. Usually, when a movie fades to black, the first credit that comes up is the director’s. Not here. The first name you see after the last image fades out is “Naomi Watts.” She is the centerpiece that holds this whole thing together.
The Impossible (2012)
Directed By: Juan Antonio Bayona
Written By: Sergio G. Sánchez (script) María Belón (story)
Produced By: Belén Atienza, Álvaro Augustín, Ghislain Barrois, Enrique López Lavigne
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast
Summit Entertainment, Running Time 114 minutes, Rated PG-13, Released December 21, 2012.