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The Impossible

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The Impossible
Based on the real-life account of surviving the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami by Maria Belon, The Impossible is an entirely different type of horror story. Brought to the screen by director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez (the Spanish filmmakers behind 2007's dark, paranormal award-winner The Orphanage ), the film achieves a terrifyingly visceral realism through a combination of visual effects, miniatures and water tanks, as well as a standout performance by Naomi Watts as Maria Belon. Yet, in its portrayal of the aftermath of the natural disaster-intent on reducing the event to the trite message of the triumph of the human spirit-The Impossible lacks emotional verisimilitude and loses its sense of authenticity.
In December 2004, the Belons, a British family living in Japan, spend their holiday vacation at a resort in Khao Lak, Thailand. On December 26, Maria (Watts), a non-practicing doctor, and oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), are swept away from husband and father Henry (Ewan McGregor), who just barely manages to hold on to his two younger sons when the waves from the tsunami hit.

Battered by debris and nearly drowned by the unrelenting walls of water, Maria manages to direct Lucas to help her and a young boy they've found get to the nearest hospital, which is in chaos from the natural disaster. Fearing she may soon die of infection, Maria distracts Lucas with the directive to go help others. Meanwhile, Henry frantically searches for Maria and Lucas, even at the risk of losing touch with the other two sons.

By Hollywood standards, The Impossible was made on a small budget. This forced Bayona to get creative with the recreation of the tsunami. The result is a harrowing 50 minutes not easily watched by the squeamish. The water comes fast, but Bayona's filming of Lucas and Maria, in particular, is drawn out and claustrophobic, helped along by sound effects that make you feel as if you're drowning. The editing successfully creates a point of view of inescapable confusion and pain. It's a brilliant example of smart, creative filmmaking that offers an experience more immersive than any recent 3D technology or altered frame rates.

So it's a huge disappointment that once the water recedes, so does the emotional content of the film. As Maria, Watts gives a strong performance. But her condition limits her screen time. She's in and out of consciousness and also absent for a chunk of the movie. This leaves the heavy lifting to Tom Holland as Lucas. He's serviceable and a little like Christian Bale in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, except without as much charisma or a big star foil like John Malkovich. As distraught husband and father Henry, Ewan McGregor is wasted. His leaving the younger two boys to find the other members of his family is distressing and his encounters with the kind-hearted victims comes off as contrived. Better for Sanchez to have used poetic license in the search and not on the sentiment.

I appreciate Sanchez's strict focus on a single family. The tsunami killed around 230,000 people and left thousands more displaced. It must have been difficult to rein in the urge to tell the larger story of this natural disaster or get preachy about climate change or even the negative aspects of economies based on tourism. It would have been easy to politicize the movie with empty gestures. However, the film seems to purposely ignore issues of race and privilege. It also causes some of its own problems, such as firmly establishing Maria as a doctor but not having her use much medical knowledge to help herself or others beyond one request for an antibiotic. And with each question unanswered and every hackneyed scene putting on a display of simplified or inauthentic human spirit, the drama built by careful visual and sound effects craftsmanship is minimized and the tension becomes diluted.

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