The Impossible tells the story of a middle-class British family holidaying in Thailand at Christmastime. Unluckily for them (and many others) their trip coincides with the 26th December 2004 tsunami.
The build-up is short: they are a typical family, three boys, one a disgruntled adolescent, played impressively by Tom Holland, (who is destined to learn the value of family the hard way). Christmas is over in just a few minutes, a symbolic red ball makes its first of several appearances, (filmmakers love to do this, why I don’t know, it’s so distracting and practically impossible not to think of the red coat). The tsunami hits and it’s brilliantly executed, around fifteen minutes of very exciting cinema, (tainted only by a rather unbecoming Coca Cola product placement). Then just over half an hour in and we are into the aftermath and this is what the film is really about. In a ruined landscape survivors are left to face their losses and the searching begins. The film depicts effectively the chaos faced by hospital staff: the sheer volume of casualties, children without parents, every other person is looking for someone, an unimaginable medical and administrative operation.
Disaster movies are fun, exciting, terrifying, that’s the whole point of them; The Impossible works on all these levels, the special effects are striking, with underwater sequences unlike anything I’ve seen on screen before. The sea is the best character in the film, its violence is shocking, and the movie is worth watching for these scenes alone; it even has its own theme tune, something resembling Jaws’ duh duh, though more subtle, it doesn’t need to be overly dramatic after all. When the trees start to rustle and you hear it, you know something terrible is going to happen, and wow you won’t be disappointed.
The film is based on the true story of a Spanish family, how accurate it actually is I don’t know, though one of the reunion scenes in particular seemed rather implausible; happy coincidences might happen in real life but in the movies they can eject you out of the world of the film. Most disaster movies are fiction, or at least based on events from the distant past, and this makes The Impossible a different kind of experience altogether. If you cast your mind back to Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), when the waves hit New York City it’s pure cinematic pleasure, it’s OK to enjoy it because it’s fiction. It’s much harder to ‘enjoy the ride’ with The Impossible, perhaps it still feels too raw, a too-guilty pleasure.
Watts’ and McGregor’s performances are good (indeed Watts has received an Oscar nomination), but the decision to have a couple of blond-haired, blue-eyed Brits as the main protagonists is questionable. It’s easy to understand why the Spanish production team didn’t want to privilege a Spanish point of view, but I’m not sure the alternative works. It’s a difficult one: the box office dictates the choice of actors but sometimes those choices can diminish the integrity of a film. I think this is what happens here, and because the film is based on real events, it really does matter that the survival, endurance and bad (or good) luck of one prosperous Western family is set so uncomfortably against the horrifying reality of the Indian Ocean tsunami that claimed an estimated 230,000 lives. Disaster movies can be an enormously satisfying cinematic experience; The Impossible is an odd combination of blockbuster-style excitement and a serious attempt to bear witness, all in all a thought-provoking hybrid.