By Carl Kozlowski
Imagine you’re on vacation with your family in what seems like an utterly idyllic place. You’ve been fortunate enough to afford a trip to the other side of the planet and to have a spacious bungalow right on the beach. Best of all, you’re there for Christmas, ensuring memories that will last a lifetime.
But what if in a split second the ocean turned into a raging tsunami and the waves swept away your family? And what if, even after you survived, you didn’t know if your family members had made it?
On Dec. 26, 2004, that nightmare scenario happened when one of the most powerful tsunamis in recorded history hit the coasts of the Indian Ocean, particularly devastating Indonesia, and killing more than 280,000 people in that country.
But just as tragedies such as these are heart-wrenching ordeals, they also often reveal incredible tales of hope, much as the one portrayed in the new film The Impossible.
The film, directed by J.A. Bayona, recounts the real-life experiences of Maria and Enrique Belon, Spaniards who were hit by the tsunami while vacationing with their three children in Thailand, which suffered 8,150 deaths in the catastrophe.
The movie stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as the renamed Maria and Henry Bennett and purposely doesn’t specify the nationalities of the characters, primarily to broaden the appeal of the story as much as possible. But in nearly every other way, Maria Belon and other tsunami survivors have credited the film with being hauntingly accurate in its depictions of the wreckage that the survivors had to endure in their search for safety and each other.
Perhaps because of Bayona’s desire to make the story one that anyone around the world could relate to, much of the film isn’t driven by its dialogue as much as the imagery of the various family members—the father with the two younger boys, and the seriously wounded mom clutching to the oldest one—in desperate searches for each other.
It doesn’t really matter that the plot isn’t very complex and sticks to the emotional basics. The Impossible is filled with unforgettable imagery; from the stomach-churning realism of the crashing waves and their perilous aftermath and harrowing depictions of the Third World hospital conditions that countless Western travelers were thrust into to numerous beautiful moments of gratitude from those who survived.
Bayona, previously known in the U.S. for his stylish horror film The Orphanage, and his team of technicians recreated the tsunami with a mix of digital effects and a giant tank in Spain in which water surges using miniatures to show the devastated cars, trees and homes that were caught up in the unceasing swirls of water in the hours and days just after the first waves hit.
This approach included having Watts and Tom Holland, who plays her eldest son, spend five weeks in the giant tank for the stunning stunts they had to perform while fighting the rapids suddenly surrounding them. They earned their paychecks like no actors in recent memory, and Watts’ astounding performance—mixing the power of a mother’s love and concern for her family with high-tension moments of hanging on to life in a cut-rate hospital—has earned her not only a Golden Globe nomination but a shot at an Oscar.
I missed The Impossible upon its early critics’ screenings a few weeks back due to the large number of releases at the time, and it hasn’t been as embraced by the movie-going public as have many other Oscar-nominated films. But while it’s only made $13 million in the U.S. it’s been a $100 million blockbuster around the world and deserves to be seen by many more here.