TIFF 2012: 'The Impossible' is a Powerful Story of Hope, But Lacks
by Alex Billington
September 10, 2012
There are many terrifying experiences in this universe that result in tragedy. In the last decade alone we've watched the world experience some of the worst natural disasters in history. One kind of disaster that has come to cause an enormous amount of death and destruction are tsunamis. J.A. Bayona's The Impossible tells the story of one family torn apart by the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in December of 2004. Visiting Thailand for a Christmas vacation, this multicultural family (based on a real Spanish family) is unsuspectingly ravaged by the destructive waves that smash ashore one morning. It is intense to watch.
Actors Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts play the husband and wife of the family, with three young sons. It doesn't take long for us to be introduced to them, get a sense of their dynamic and love (despite a bit of typical familial communication issues), just before the tsunami hits. There's no warning. They wake up one morning, and as they're standing around the pool with the sun shining, an eerie silence out of nowhere, then rumbling. All of a sudden a massive wave of water crashes in, destroying anything around them and plunging everything into darkness. What would that experience be like? I almost don't want to know, ever, but Bayona shows us exactly what it would be like. Visually and, most importantly, aurally, and is it chilling.
The story then focuses on the aftermath, as the father and two sons are separated from the mother and another son. We see what it's like for this entirely devastated community to come together, save lives, find courage and even some happiness, and believe in hope. That's where the remaining half of the film goes, and it's interesting to watch, but not as interesting/nerve-wracking as the lead up to the tsunami first hitting.
Where Spanish filmmaker Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) succeeds with The Impossible is in the sheer terror and anxiety of the entire event. It doesn't take long for the tsunami to hit, but when it does, it's intense. I think deep down inside, we all secretly fear getting caught in this kind of terrifying experience. We don't ever really want to know what it's actually like, but we kind of do, because if it ever happens, we all want to be prepared. Our minds need to be ready for the pain, for the intensity. Right? The Impossible gives what I believe is one of the brutally honest looks at getting caught in this, using both amazing sound tricks and frightening visuals to make the experience feel real in watching. That's where the film excels the most.
The sound design itself is incredible. Not just the tsunami, but along the way and after. Bayona uses sound as intimately and intricately as he uses the camera and actors. And since we can't smell or actually touch the world shown, sound is the most important sense. Your mind fills in the gaps, even the painful ones, just based on a noise. Something that makes your heart beat faster, something that makes you feel a sense of relief, or maybe even hope. He takes us into this world, shows us what it was really like, but then gives us a glimmer of hope through it all. He shows us that courage and community can and occasionally do triumph.
Alas, I think that's a bit of its downfall. It seems to be lacking something, but I just couldn't figure out what. Its got all of the right elements - stunning cinematography, amazing sound design, fantastic performances especially from the oldest son played by Tom Holland, an endearing message of hope. But it never brought me to tears, it never made me feel in love with the film. I admire it, I respect it, and I appreciate the work within it, but it didn't leave the emotional impact that I suppose I was expecting it to. Maybe I'd seen the trailer too much. Maybe it was the odd editing choice near the end. I'm not entirely sure, but it seemed to be missing something that could've elevated it to those levels. At least I can be inspired by its courageousness.
Alex's Toronto Rating: 7 out of 10