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New Release Review - The Impossible

Directed by: Juan Antonio Bayona
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Geraldine Chaplin

Reworking of the real-life experiences of a family caught up in the 2004 boxing day tsunami.

McGregor and Watts are spending Christmas with their three young boys at a plush Thailand resort when the tsunami hits. Watts finds herself alone with her eldest son, Holland, swept far away from the resort. McGregor, meanwhile, has survived with the other two children back at the resort. Suffering serious injuries, Watts is brought to a local hospital by natives while McGregor sets out to locate her and Holland against seemingly insurmountable odds.
In the wrong hands, and modern cinema is replete with wrong hands, ‘The Impossible’ could have been a travesty. Film-makers generally aren’t known for their sensitivity and are quick to exploit any real life tragedy in the interest of good box-office. Last year’s reprehensible ‘Chernobyl Diaries’ was a particularly low point, turning the victims of one of Europe’s greatest tragedies into the villains of a bad horror movie. On face value, ‘The Impossible’ seems like yet another movie which celebrates the survival and heroism of white westerners caught up in tragic events in that pesky “developing world”. The film actually couldn’t be further from that wretched archetype. Granted, the real life family were Spanish rather than British but this is the one concession the film makes to commercialism. Frankly, it’s an unfortunate but necessary one. To convey the carnage of the situation meant this would have to be a large budget undertaking, one which would struggle to recoup its outlay were it subtitled and lacking star names.
The movie cost $45 million, a huge amount for a Spanish production but Bayona's film looks like it cost at least five times that amount. With his cinematographer and production design team, he captures the scale of the carnage brilliantly, without resorting to any dodgy CG landscapes. It's masterful film-making from a director whose only prior feature was the 2007 Spanish horror 'The Orphanage'. Hiring a horror director for such a drama may at first seem like an odd choice but in practice it actually makes perfect sense. Where most film-makers would attempt to turn the story into a tale of heroism and the triumph of the human spirit, Bayona gives us a large scale survival horror. Confronted with the image of Watts, trudging bedraggled, bloodied and bruised through a glistening sun-drenched hellscape, it's impossible not to think of Marilyn Burns in 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre'. When the action moves to the chaos of a ramshackle, struggling to cope, hospital, we're reminded of Romero's zombie movies and Cronenberg's body-horrors.
Bayona's film earns it's sentimentality without over-spending it. His primary influence seems to be Spielberg. Holland's wide-eyed young boy, desperate to help however he can, recalls Christian Bale in 'Empire of the Sun'. It's a fantastic performance, devoid of the "small adult" approach of lesser child actors. Like 'Schindler's List', each time the movie gives us a moment of optimism it's followed by a dark turn, hands reaching out to one another only to be robbed of a clasp. One of Spielberg's greatest moments can be seen in 'Duel' and is reworked brilliantly here. In Spielberg's film, Dennis Weaver admonishes a bunch of kids for sitting on the hood of his car. Later, attempting to free his car from beneath a school bus where it has become lodged, he jumps up and down wildly on its hood, desperate to dislodge it before the "killer truck" bears down on him. It's a brilliant visualization of how our priorities change in desperate situations. Here, early on, Watts is mortified when she realizes the strap of her dress has been severed, exposing her bare breast to her son. Later, desperate to receive help from a surgeon, she has no such dignity as he tears open her vest with her son watching.
What makes 'The Impossible' so great, and so real, is that its lead characters are never portrayed as heroes. Faced with such a scenario, most of us would only care about the well being of our immediate loved ones and Bayona portrays his protagonists this way. They're neither heroes nor villains, just a family who want to go home.
With 'Skyfall', Britain showed us it could produce a big budget film far better than Hollywood seems capable of. Now, with 'The Impossible', Spain has done likewise.
8/10
The Impossible (2012) on IMDb 7.7/10



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