The human spirit is always a strong candidate for rousing, emotional movies. A natural disaster as the catalyst for human drama has been used in movies as from “2012” to “Melancholia.” A tsunami, or huge wave movie, usually requires technical efficiency, especially a film based on a disaster that affected so many as the one that hit South East Asia the day after Christmas in 2004.
Juan Antonio Bayona’s (who now wants to be only known as JA Bayona) “The Impossible” is a remarkable feat of technical skill. The waves crashing into the brand new resort (opened for just a few weeks) represents a violent clash of the true power of nature. The use of CGI imagery and editing caused for truly cringe-worthy moments as Bayona leaves nothing unseen. Each time a character’s head knocks against a floating piece of debris or a branch penetrates into a leg as the current rushes a human being caused a visceral reaction. For a second feature, Bayona is still creating a horror film (his first film being “The Orphanage”). This time the villain is nature.
The tragedy that occurs within the first half-hour mark is nothing without compelling protagonists which is provided by the very white family, the patriarch being Henry (Ewan McGregor) and the matriarch Maria (Naomi Watts). They are a higher-class family with three children, all boys, and even with their usual family bickering, they provide for a likable enough family that it is difficult not to empathize when the disaster hits.
The tsunami only lasts for a fifteen-minute segment, and the rest of the film is about the struggle of a family, now separated, finding each other in the wake of a natural disaster. The results are expected but the true drama comes from the journey itself and is predicated by how well the actors portray the struggle which in this case is extremely well. Naomi Watts gives one of her best performances in an already blooming filmography. She is able to lend hand the unharnessed motherly strength despite all her injuries. Each emotional push and perseverance is reflected through the anguish on her face in which only a stone-hearted person could not be emotionally touched. And McGregor gives a touching performance, if not as juicy a role, as the dad in distress trying to locate his family.
Yet, this is Tom Holland’s feature film debut. At the age of 12, Tom Holland was able to mature in a believable way before the camera’s lenses. He goes through the vain, self-obsessed notion of adolescence to one who is able to take responsibility, and the ability to portray that growth requires a powerful young actor in an age of many terrific young actors. Furthermore, other two children are not as prominently featuredsince finding actors that young to give performances on par with Tom Holland’s would be difficult.
In a way, the singular view on one family is both a strength and detriment to the film. It is strength because it allows Bayona to focus all his attention on that one family, allowing him to get the maximum drama and suspense. Death is always a possibility and Bayona uses this one family to navigate through that terror. Yet, by the end of the film, something feels as though missing. The 2004 tsunami was one of the biggest natural disasters in modern times and although other families were touched upon by the film, the holistic experience of the locals, of the people working in the hospitals, felt empty.
After eighty minutes of didactic, meticulous build up, the film devolves to the emotional manipulation of a Stephen Daldry film. Sure, there was emotional manipulation earlier, but nothing so apparent and abhorrent like the final half hour when the film becomes the John Cusack romantic comedy, “Serendipity,” in which characters merely miss each other despite being in the same building time after time. That kind of emotional manipulation treats the audience as if they are dumb and is disappointing in a film that played straight and smart for most of it.
That’s not dismissing the film entirely. Bayona knows how to create tension and suspense and uses it efficiently throughout. Moreover, despite the controversy of white-washing the true events, by making the original Hispanic family into a Caucasian family, the story is really about human spirit and how it triumphs over tragedy. It tugs at the heart strings creating a tsunami of emotions in itself and displays the power of cinema.
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