Friday, January 25, 2013

The Impossible: A compelling battle for survival

The Impossible (2012) • View trailer
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.

Battered by a wall of water, and injured in ways they haven't yet realized, Maria (Naomi
Watts) and her eldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), struggle just to keep their heads
above the surface. As for the rest of their family ... they've absolutely no idea.
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.”

Dozens of moments in this film will build a lump in the throat — indeed, after a time, the emotional intensity never diminishes — but the simple, unexpected gestures of kindness, often across language barriers, are the most powerful. A door, ripped from its hinges and used as a makeshift stretcher. A cell phone. A child’s shy smile, and gentle stroking of a friendly arm.


The story begins peacefully, even idyllically, as Maria, Henry and their three sons arrive at the lush Orchid Resort. These characters are sketched quickly — but vividly — in these early scenes: Henry the loving husband and father, perhaps concerned about the stability of his job; Maria a doctor who has put her practice on hold, to raise her family.

Lucas has reached the mildly rebellious age where stirrings of independence prompt him to lose patience with his two younger brothers. Middle son Thomas, unusually timid, is fascinated by stars and constellations. Five-year-old Simon is cheerful and untroubled, still too young to believe the world is anything but a happy, magical place.

“Magical” being the operative word, particularly on Christmas Eve, as the resort guests set dozens of candle-warmed luminaries aloft, and watch them ascend into the heavens. Cinematographer Óscar Faura makes the moment romantic and lush.

Christmas comes and goes; Boxing Day arrives equally untroubled. The family joins other tourists in the resort pool. Henry, Thomas and Simon tussle in the water; Lucas crosses the deck to retrieve a large plastic ball; Maria chases a loose page from the book she’s reading, finally snatching it while crouched in front of a plate-glass barrier. (Oh God, we think.)

Birds shriek overhead, flying away from ... something. The low roar that has been at the edge of everybody’s awareness — ours included — builds. Lucas pauses, and Bayona trusts young Holland’s tense pose and stunned expression to convey the horror of this suddenly approaching wall of water.

Then, chaos.

Maria eventually surfaces, battling for sunlight while countless other people, knocked senseless after being hurled into hard objects, silently drown. She spots Lucas, similarly struggling; they fight implacable currents while trying to reach each other. Fingers clutch, part, clutch again. (Bayona mercilessly toys with our emotions like this, repeatedly, as the drama unfolds.)

This lengthy second act is devoted to Maria and Lucas, as the boy takes charge after realizing the severity of his mother’s injuries. The first shattering moment comes as they reach the (possible) safety of shallow water, and Lucas recoils from his mother’s bared and gashed breast. Holland’s face is a powerful blend of anguish and embarrassment, as he says, barely audibly, “Mum ... I can’t see you like that.” (She doesn’t yet know about the gaping tear on the back of her right leg.)

Watts, in turn, continues the moment: Despite the pain building by the second, now that panic is subsiding, Maria grimly tries to cover herself, instinctively understanding that her son needs the assurance of propriety, if he’s to hold it together. Lucas, in turn, quickly realizes that he dare not cry; if he does, his mother will lose her fragile hold on self-control.

Watts’ Academy Award nomination is a given; rarely has an actress been to hell and back so many times, and so persuasively. Her hold on life itself seems to slip away, as Maria’s wounds take their toll. I’m deeply disappointed, though, that young Holland hasn’t been similarly acknowledged. He charts an impressive emotional course as this saga progresses, his manner and actions never less than absolutely authentic.

Holland’s Lucas becomes our surrogate, the boy rising to various challenges in the manner we’d hope to possess. I’m reminded of young Ross Harris in 1983’s Testament, as the resolute boy who bicycles throughout his fallout-infected town, serving as a de facto messenger for friends and neighbors.

Holland has a similarly poignant scene when the action shifts to the Takua Pa hospital, with lone survivors wondering whether family members might be alive elsewhere in this huge, now largely makeshift facility. He initially promises to help one man, and soon Lucas is trolling the corridors, calling off names from an ever-expanding list.

Bayona, torturing us anew, juxtaposes elation with heartbreak.

Coincidence, trauma and misidentification — in great part due to the language barrier — build to a point that’s impossible to bear. Bayona is quite adept at such emotional manipulation, having profoundly disturbed us with 2007’s chiller, The Orphanage. The Impossible is a different sort of horror film, with moments, images and emotions so raw that they’re capable of leaving mental scars.

Watts and Holland get the lion’s share of screen time, but the acting throughout is sensational. Joslin’s Thomas visibly struggles to overcome his own terror when put in charge of Simon; the transition is poignant beyond words. Pendergast’s tiny face, in turn, turns painfully desperate when circumstances prevent Simon from going to the bathroom: a remnant of civilized behavior the little boy can’t bear to part with.

Geraldine Chapin pops up briefly as an old, weary but perceptive woman who helps Thomas ease his fears. Ploy Jindachote is memorable as a hospital caregiver who approaches Lucas with gentle sensitivity; little Johan Sundberg is haunting, as a displaced child.

Faura’s cinematography is superb, initially conveying this land’s delicate beauty, and then — in the aftermath — the oppressive, fetid, heat-drenched devastation. Editors Elena Ruiz and Bernat Vilaplana deserve considerable credit for both pacing and intensity. Bayona similarly understands when to bring the camera in for a close-up, and when to pull back, to convey the utter helplessness of frail human beings beset by Nature at her worst.

The Impossible is profoundly hard to endure at times, and yet it’s also profound in a spiritual sense: a testament to human resilience and compassion, and the willingness of total strangers to pull together, in a crisis, for the collective greater good.

Frankly, it’s refreshing to see such a positive, uplifting depiction of people as selfless citizens of the world.

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