It’s fairly easy for our minds to picture ten, one hundred, even a thousand deaths. When it gets to the tenths of thousands, it gets harder to really picture it. But when the death toll reaches hundreds of thousands of deaths, it’s just impossible to imagine. The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami was the aftermath of one the strongest earthquakes ever recorded in history, taking the lives of an estimated 230,000 people.
When The Impossible begins you already know what’s coming, so every shot of the ocean, no matter how calm, is tainted with the terror of eminent danger. This creates an almost unbearable suspense, fuelled by the desire to warn the protagonists. They are Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor), Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), respectively the parents and their three sons.
Back in 2004 it was shocking to see the devastation in Thailand, but (and I speak for myself here) it was not this shocking; no doubt the fact that I was twelve plays a role here, but the sad truth is, the bigger the tragedy, the worse we assimilate it — and that is no news. So no matter how many news reports you’ve read, how much documentary footage you’ve seen, nothing prepares you for the emotional toll of being in the front row, of seeing it all from the victim’s perspective.
The first half of the film is arguably its best: the massive, excruciatingly realistic sequences of the tsunami hit are amongst the most intense ever made for disaster movies, and surely the better accomplished: advanced CGI may be the latest fashion, but nothing beats huge amounts of real water — in fact I’d invite you all to watch the Making Of, it’s very interesting — so the anaesthesia-induced dream sequence was actually the only thing I didn’t like. But even the best of sets wouldn’t be effective without the actors in it, and at the core of this movie is undoubtedly the work of an inspired ensemble.
First of all, there was such a great chemistry between the five that they actually looked like a real family. Naomi Watts owns the screen with incredible force, both physical and emotional. As she herself has said, she’s not exactly young anymore, so to shoot for seven months such demanding scenes says a lot about this woman’s strength and talent. The kids were exceptionally good, particularly Holland, who is the driving force of a significant part of film — it is not common to see a sixteen year old display this kind of emotion on screen with such depth.
And as for McGregor… I stopped writing this to check for the first time this year’s Oscars nominees; admittedly I’ve been sort of MIA when it comes to awards this season, but surely there must have been room for what McGregor did here. There wasn’t one single person in the room that didn’t feel moved by the phone-call scene.
But the biggest achievement of The Impossible is that it has just the right tone: despite this being an incredibly dramatic story, it never falls into melodrama; hope is was drives it, and in the end it’s a story of triumph. One of my favourite things about it is how they emphasised the help provided by the locals. As is remarked in the Making Of, one of the most inspiring aspects about what happened is how the local community went above and beyond to immediately help the tourists, when their land had just been devastated.