Twenty minutes in 'The Impossible', a little boy helps his severely injured mother climb a tree to save her from a devastating tidal wave. As she steps on his hands the blood squelches out of her (injured) foot, the boy struggles to hold on to the tree, knowing that the slightest twitch would mean being swept away. It’s one of the many stunning scenes in the film that leave you squirming in your seat.
Directed by The Orphanage’s Juan Antonio Bayona, The Impossible chronicles the real-life story of a family holidaying in a Thailand resort that was ravaged by the 2004 Tsunami. Like he displayed his flair for characterisation in his previous film, Bayona tastefully spends only 10 minutes here to define each character with subtle strokes instead of melodramatic or clichéd Hollywood style rendering.
Bayona then plucks you out of your seat and plunges you right into the nightmare with a frightening recreation of the floods and truly disturbing sound design. Without needing any extra 3D gimmick we’re immersed into the visuals, tossed in the bloodied water along with Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three kids, buoyed by the staggering visual effects of tidal waves and gruesome makeup of gashes and scratches. Seldom does a Hollywood film make you feel anguish when a character clings on to dear life, and Bayona hits you right in the sweet spot here.
There is a snag though — while the first half featuring the mother and one of her kids is an intense and gritty recreation of the event like Paul Greengrass’ United 93, the second half, which focusses on the father, is more of a schmaltzy mess that significantly mars the overall quality of the film. Bombastic scenes of triumph of the human spirit in dire circumstances are inevitable in cinema and Bayona sells out in a big way with corny scenes like a fellow survivor offering his mobile phone to Henry despite his own need for it. No doubt, the latter events in the film were candyflossed for the sake of the box office, as was the casting of popular Hollywood stars to play a Spanish family. There are also some strange red herrings and chance-misses in the second half that seem woefully unrealistic in a film that boasts realism and flaunts the words ‘true story’ for no less than half a minute during the opening credits.
Despite the contrivances, The Impossible becomes a breathtaking watch courtesy of powerhouse performances from Watts and the 16-year-old Tom Holland who rise way above the stringy script. The two are incredible at portraying the desolation, panic and terror felt by the characters and your stomach is all but left in knots by the end. The best moment of the film, however, isn’t the Tsunami flood CGI or the ending, but a little scene where a kid realises the parallel between stars in the night sky and bodies in a flood — it’s impossible to know which ones are dying.