A family with three young children is caught in a natural disaster while on vacation in a foreign country. With no further details, I’m hooked. My heart immediately goes out for them and I want to know this family’s story. The Impossible is based on the true story of the Belón family from Spain who were on the coast of Thailand during the catastrophic tsunami of 2004.
Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) are about to spend Christmas on vacation with their three young boys. In the first few scenes we get a sense how their family functions. Their oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland) is on the cusp of puberty and growing more defiant. Their middle son, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) is only seven and a half, hardly self aware yet. And Simon is just an innocent little five year old. From their time on the plane and spending Christmas together, we see a lot of love and the parents treat their boys with kindness and understanding. They’re nearly ideal.
The tsunami hits while the family is at the resort’s pool. It splits them far apart, but thankfully none of the boys are alone. We are shown an intense scene where Maria and Lucas are being swept away in the strong current filled with all manner of debris. Finding each other alive in the chaos is a miracle, much less being able to physically swim to each other, especially while Maria is so injured. We get hints that Henry, Simon and Thomas were in a similar situation, closer to the resort, but we are not shown. Seeing a five year old in that turmoil would have been far too much.
While the tsunami scene is realistic, frightening and very intense, the film’s heart is found in the aftermath. Before Maria and Lucas have found higher ground, they find a little boy and bring him with them, even as they’re afraid of another wave approaching. With Maria’s injuries (that looked bad enough to even make my husband gasp) she cannot walk well and will not survive without medical treatment. Through the kindness of strangers she and Lucas can’t even understand, they help get Maria to a hospital.
The hospital is chaos and so over capacity that people lay in hallways, out on sidewalks and in numerous makeshift tents outside on the grounds. As his mother is treated, but grows weaker, she urges Lucas to go try to help around the hospital. While he tries to find one man’s missing children, he’s called on by many others to try to find theirs. It’s only a drop in the bucket of displaced families searching in vain. Even worse, with so much chaos in the hospital, Lucas can’t find his mother and doesn’t know whether she is alive or not.
As Maria and Lucas fight to survive, Henry is faced with searching for them. In a hard decision, he decides to let his younger boys go with a group up to the mountains where they’ll be safe from any possible waves, while he continues to search for his wife and Lucas. As Henry searches, we see how futile the effort is. Rubble is everywhere, and it’s impossible to look into it all, much less know if they are one of the bodies lined up and wrapped in a tarp. Even as we see their distance shrink, Henry is searching for needles in one of many haystack hospitals.
I’m not the kind of viewer that falls for sentimental bull, but I spent a good portion of The Impossible with tears in my eyes. I was genuinely scared during the tsunami scene, wincing in pain for Maria and heartbroken as Henry broke down on the phone with his father. The biggest emotional pull for me was knowing how terrified the whole family must have been not knowing where their missing loved ones were, much less if they even survived.
While The Impossible can be considered a disaster film, it doesn’t feel like Earthquake, The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure. It isn’t about action or heroic stunts, it’s far too real for that. It has a lot of heart, the kind that most rarely see. The kind that only comes out when people are at their most helpless and lost moments.
The only Oscar nomination The Impossible earned was for Naomi Watts’ performance. She is the rock of this film and drives it, guiding young Holland with her. Had there been ten Best Picture nominations, I’d like to believe this would have taken that last spot.
The Impossible may not be an easy film for some people. The tsunami scene and people struggling in the aftermath are intense and have some disturbing images. However, I believe it’s a great film about hope, the real life chaos after a large tragedy and the impossible story of one very lucky family.
“When I came up, I was on my own. That was the scariest part. And when I saw the two of you climbing to the tree, I didn’t feel so scared anymore. I knew I wasn’t on my own.”