It’s easy to dismiss movies these days as Oscar bait. In particular, it’s easy for critics to point out when a movie is manipulating you into feeling something rather than really earning it, but it’s not just the job of a critic to make those observations. It’s our job to realize when those manipulations work. In the case of The Impossible, they definitely do. Set during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that took the lives of more than 230,000 people, one can’t help but feel sadness for those who lost loved ones and those whose entire livelihoods were destroyed. Because there’s no tangible villain to direct your anger at, sadness is the only proper emotion to feel and the film, regardless of its manipulations, is powerful to watch. The Impossible is a somber, yet terrifying experience that absolutely must be seen.
It’s Christmas Day and a British family is on vacation at a beautiful resort in Thailand where the beaches are plentiful and the water is clear. It’s a tropical paradise that anybody would want to visit. They spend their holiday basking in the warm sun and enjoying each other’s company, but the following day, their relaxation is interrupted by a massive tsunami that separates them. The mother, Maria (Naomi Watts), and the oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), find themselves stranded with seemingly nobody else around and Maria is severely injured. She won’t be able to go on long. The father, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and the two youngest sons, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) are slightly more fortunate. None are harmed more than a few cuts and bruises; it’s their mental and emotional weaknesses that may get the best of them as they go on a search for Maria and Lucas.
Never before has nature been so terrifying. The tsunami as depicted in The Impossible is one of the scariest things I’ve seen all year. It’s expertly realized, beautifully rendered and it convincingly creates the illusion that you’re there experiencing the terrible event firsthand. Don’t be surprised if after watching this movie the sound of rushing water gets your heart pounding. Yet amidst the devastation—the ransacked villages, the floating corpses, the many objects being swept away under the strength of the flood—there’s a strange beauty to the proceedings. The film, after it terrifies you, warms your heart with a tale of altruism and bravery. Ultimately, The Impossible is about the triumph of the human spirit. Even when we’re battered, bruised and beaten, it’s the good in us that puts others before ourselves. Despite her desperate search for the rest of her family and her numerous wounds, some of which are life threatening, Maria gives aid to a small child who has become stuck under some tree branches brought on by the force of the storm.
This act of kindness works as both inspiration for Lucas to realize how important all life is, not just the lives of his family, and as a catalyst to set forth a chain of other acts of kindness. When they finally reach a nearby hospital, with the help of some other selfless souls, Lucas goes on a mission to find sons, daughters, mothers, husbands and more and reconnect them with their missing family. His actions don’t save lives, nor do they amount to much in the big scheme of things, but they mean so much to the people he’s doing them for that it feels big. Seemingly small moments of happiness and glimmers of hope begin to overcome that initial feeling of sadness that overwhelms so early on.
If you don’t see the light shining through the darkness, you’ll at least feel the pain the characters are going through. Much of their pain is visceral—you’ll cringe just as much as they scream out in agony—which is mainly due to a collection of wonderful performances that bring this tragic event to life. Watts and McGregor are terrific as usual, but it’s the kids who shine here, particularly Tom Holland in his first ever big screen role. His role is a heavy one that requires much of him, more than many child actors (or actors in general) would be able to handle, but he knocks it out of the park, showing a poise that veteran actors in their 40’s and 50’s would be jealous to have. He doesn’t hit a single false note here and gives one of the best, most powerfully moving performances of the year. Let’s hope the Oscar voters don’t overlook him simply because of his age.
The Impossible is a movie that wrecks you emotionally before lifting you up into a state of euphoria by showcasing people with bravery and selflessness befitting a platoon of soldiers. Its drama flows naturally, aside from some late movie contrivances like character near misses and timely coincidences, and it’s guaranteed to warm the heart. It instills in you a feeling that, regardless of whatever horrific act has occurred recently, the majority of people are good people and are fast to act to help others. Like some of the other best movies of the year, The Impossible is life affirming and dispels the cynicism behind the idea that humans care about themselves first and others second. In this movie, all life is seen as equal, as it should be.
The Impossible receives 4.5/5