4.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, horrific mass injury and fleeting nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 1.25.13
Félix Bergés and Pau Costa have been deservedly lauded for their special effects; the replicated tsunami — which killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries, on Dec. 26, 2004 — is completely terrifying, as depicted here on the screen.
But these images, although breathtaking and grim, aren’t the strongest element of director Juan Antonio Bayona’s film. That honor belongs to Oriol Tarragó and Marc Bech, who designed and edited the chilling sound effects. Indeed, that’s how The Impossible opens: on a black and silent screen, with a rising, gurgly sort of rumble that intensifies until we scarcely can stand it, wondering precisely what the sound signifies.
We imagine the worst, our minds racing in ghastly directions, this directorial choice far more powerfully placing us “in the moment” than what might be shown.
Then we nearly jump out of our seats as a passenger jet screams into the suddenly illuminated frame, taking our protagonists to what they expect will be an idyllic Christmas holiday in Thailand.
This won’t be the last time Bayona unsettles us with his imaginative application of sound and sound effects. He plays us masterfully, utilizing every element at hand: visual, aural and psychological. The result is impressive, if arduous: often quite difficult to watch.
And it sure makes the star-laden, so-called “disaster flicks” of the 1970s look damn silly and superficial, by comparison.
Sergio G. Sánchez’s screenplay is based on the events as experienced by María Belón, Quique Alvarez and their three sons: Lucas, Tomas and Simon. They’re played here, respectively, by Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor (renamed Henry), Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast. The actual family is Spanish; the script’s one major deviation from fact is to re-cast them as British.
This isn’t merely a concession to box-office popularity, Watts and McGregor undoubtedly being perceived as a draw. This cinematic family’s pale skin and clearly privileged manner — Henry’s high-level job in Japan allowing the luxury of their global travel — more visibly shorthands the cultural divide, once tragedy strikes.
And that’s important, because — as recently confirmed by Simon Jenkins, who was 16 when the tsunami hit, and was compelled by this film’s release to write a letter to The Guardian, over in England — this casting decision stirringly amplifies the generous, selfless behavior of the Thai survivors who, in the immediate wake of the catastrophe, did everything they could to offer assistance.
Jenkins’ letter speaks glowingly of the “profound sense of community and unity” that he experienced: “The Thai people had just lost everything — homes, businesses, families — yet their instinct was to help the tourists.”