Review | The Impossible

Summit Entertainment’s The Impossible is one-half superb survival movie and one-half creaky melodrama. Based on a real story of the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and ensuing tsunami, the film features one or two moments that, if true, strain the limits of impossible things this moviegoer will accept.

Naomi Watts and newcomer Tom Holland star in the half of the film I enjoyed. Watts plays Maria, a doctor on Christmas vacation with her husband (Ewan McGregor) and three children. We learn her relationship with her oldest son Lucas (Holland) is strained, but that changes when the wave hits and the two, separated from McGregor and the younger boys, begin a perilous journey to whatever civilization may remain.

This section is truly great, and the shots of the first wave are really well done. I imagine they were achieved in the computer, but blend rather seamlessly with the live-action elements. Once Maria is hit by the water, the film skips ahead to claustrophobic shots of her fighting to reach the surface. Once she finds a branch to hold onto, she hears Lucas in the distance and swims out to find him. It's well-realized as the two dodge debris, climb on cars and take a few hits to save one another. Adding tension is the knowledge that they could easily be washed out to sea or killed when the next wave rolls in.

The use of sound in this section is also a great accomplishment. Director J.A. Bayona puts the audience on edge from the onset, blasting sound while the screen is still black to unsettle you and make you keenly aware of how the speakers are going to matter for the next 40 minutes or so.

Once Maria and Lucas survive the last of the waves, the real journey begins. It's here that I became impressed with Watts. I'll be honest, I'm not much of a fan, but she held her own in situations that required her to scream in agony or tear up with the possibility that she might die, leaving Lucas alone amid the disaster. Parts of the performance are uncomfortable, but not for lack of talent. It brushes against the viewer as almost too real. Her pain never seems forced or acted and it lends tremendous credibility to the entire situation.

Holland is also impressive in these scenes. In a moment when Lucas believes his mother to be dead, Holland not only plays the gamut of emotions, but also a boy's inability to process them. He is as worthy as Watts for recognition during awards season. The two also possess a genuine mother/son bond. It's pretty rare to see that in disaster or survival movies, which is why the characters are usually strangers at the start. They bond through adversity, while the characters in The Impossible must redefine their relationships. It’s tougher material handled with smarts and care.

Bayona's background is in horror (he directed The Orphanage), and he uses that expertise to deliver some pretty gnarly glimpses of just how awful it can be to survive. This takes center stage during a sequence in which Watts begins to cough up blood and, well, something else that will leave you wondering "What the hell was that?"

Unfortunately, the movie falls to pieces when the perspective switches to McGregor. We don't see how he survived the tsunami or how he rescued his other two sons, which places the audience at a distance from the characters. Their survival already seems improbable, and the choices McGregor's character makes in the next 10 or so minutes turned me against him. As an actor, he puts his all into the performance; there is a moment of genuine emotional exhaustion that’s incredibly effective. The problem occurs at the writing level and the way McGregor's character goes about trying to find Maria and Lucas. It breaks the verisimilitude of the first half.

And here's where that pesky "based on true events" tag rears its earnest head. I've tried looking up more about the actual Spanish family whose experiences form the basis for the film, but was unable to confirm the circumstances of their survival or how they were reunited. Other than the section with Maria and Lucas, the way these events are dramatized strain credulity. If these portrayals do not reflect the facts, then it becomes a case of lazy screenwriting. If they are the facts, then they are presented in a way that makes them seem, if you'll forgive me, impossible.

That's really irksome when the first half of the film succeeds at the high level of veracity it sets for itself. It's graphic, brutal and honest -- the second half, not so much. It gets perilously close to the sort of plotting and resolution you might find in a Christmas-themed television movie. Again, even if it is true-to-life -- especially if it reflects the truth -- that material has to be handled delicately and without clichéd movie grammar getting in the way.

It is also entirely possible that I'm too jaded to believe such events, whether real or fictional. The Impossible could easily be just that for me. At the same time, its second half could be a satisfactory conclusion for viewers with more hope in their hearts and less grime on their souls. Those more willing to hold their breath will find a complete film that champions the human spirit and proves that some bonds can overcome the greatest adversities.

At the same time, the film is absolutely worth a view for its great first half. There, you get a cinematic depiction of devastation so real, big budget action movies will have to steer clear of similar premises for awhile. Naomi Watt's scream is a far better special effect.

The Impossible opens today.

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