Films based on actual historical disasters and tragedies face many potential pitfalls. When directed with a heavy hand, they can be exploitative. If the touch is too sensitive, they can be syrupy and sentimental. If there's an agenda, a preachy tone often results. And then, of course, there's the inevitable dramatic embellishment that often cheapens the central event and conspires to derail the entire enterprise. Getting it right takes an unbiased perspective and fierce commitment, and Juan Antonio Bayona impressively brings both to the table in his riveting and inspirational account of one family's real-life struggle to survive the devastating tsunami that struck the coast of Thailand the day after Christmas in 2004. 'The Impossible' recreates that horrendous happening and its chaotic aftermath with a steady, uncompromising hand, maintaining an intimate focus without ignoring the larger canvas. It's a tricky tightrope to walk, but Bayona navigates it well, and the result is a memorable, affecting motion picture that celebrates humanity in the face of unspeakable strife.
No question about it, 'The Impossible' is the ultimate disaster flick, a chronicle of an historical cataclysm that caused thousands of casualties and leveled a vast area, but unlike its cheesy 1970s predecessors ('The Poseidon Adventure' chief among them), this film treats its topic with reverence, not as a vehicle to showcase destruction and death. Few movies capture the physical and emotional toll such a catastrophe exacts with as much integrity and grace, and although we may not be able to relate to the event itself, we can identify with the people experiencing it, thanks to screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez's simple script that emphasizes basic human emotions and values over massive spectacle.
As the film opens, Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) sit on a Thailand-bound flight with their three sons - Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) - and the bumpy air and fastening of seatbelts foreshadows the turbulence to come and the steely attitude required to withstand it. "Paradise" best describes the sun-baked, tropical atmosphere where the family spends an idyllic Christmas, yet the following day, while frolicking in the hotel swimming pool, their lives are turned upside-down when, without warning, a colossal wall of water bulldozes their resort, scattering them asunder. Maria and Lucas find themselves cascading down the same current, but Henry and the other two boys are seemingly lost in the raging tide. How the family reunites, overcoming impossible odds and life-threatening injury, comprises the balance of the film.
'The Impossible' is a straightforward telling of one family's story without any extraneous subplots or hyper-dramatic invention. And therein lies its power. Through the semi-documentary presentation, we see how a desperate situation forces the characters to make difficult choices (some of which we may not agree with), summon reserves of strength, confront fears, and live in the moment, no matter how stressful and taxing that moment may be. We witness the overwhelming strain and emotional and physical exhaustion that consume the family and those around them, the acute pain of separation, as well as the sense of purpose and undying hope that drives them. Alternately harrowing and uplifting, unbearably sad and undeniably euphoric, 'The Impossible' is, at times, a tough film to watch. Though our sympathies lie with Maria, Henry, and their three boys, the film constantly reminds us others aren't nearly as lucky as they. The faces of orphaned children and bereft parents and spouses make us realize shattered lives outnumber happy endings by a wide margin.
Technically, the movie impresses with its command of special effects. Recreating a tsunami is no easy task, yet Bayona, in only his second feature film, rises to the occasion, fashioning a dazzling spectacle that's frighteningly realistic and not the least bit hokey. The director, however, excels to an even greater extent crafting small, interpersonal moments, and extracting marvelous performances from his juvenile actors, especially Holland, who noticeably grows and matures over the film's course. Bayona also wrings fine work from McGregor and the luminous Watts, who rightfully received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her stirring portrayal. Understated yet powerful, Watts' portrait of the physically maimed yet always clear-headed and insightful Maria resonates long after the film ends.
A tale of courage, resolve, and snatching hope from the jaws of despair, 'The Impossible' inspires without alienating its audience. Its commendable simplicity keeps its central messages in perspective, and though the lack of plot may frustrate some viewers, the aura of universal brotherhood oozing from almost every frame of this beautifully mounted motion picture more than compensates for any inert stretches. The human spirit is an amazing organism, and above anything else, 'The Impossible' cautions us never to underestimate or devalue it. If you believe this film, that spirit is capable of almost anything.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Impossible' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case swathed in a glossy slipcase. A Blu-ray disc and leaflet containing a code to access the Ultraviolet Digital Copy are included inside. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, a promo for the Happy Hearts Fund charity and previews for 'Now You See Me' and 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' precede the static menu with music.
A nicely detailed, spic-'n'-span transfer brings this tale of disaster and survival to brilliant life. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort from Summit benefits from a faint grain structure that adds necessary grit and texture to the image, solid clarity, and fine contrast. A minor quibble concerns the presentation of some exterior scenes, which often appear a notch or two above the norm on the brightness scale. The choice may have been intentional, as it emphasizes the starkness of the situation and oppressive heat afflicting the characters, but it slightly washes out the image. No nicks, scratches, or other extraneous marks dot the pristine print, allowing almost complete immersion in the story.
Though there isn't much opportunity for lush saturation among the acres of debris and clinical hospital interiors that comprise the bulk of the film, the color palette is surprisingly vivid. A few scenes early in the movie, before disaster strikes, provide a hint of the beauty of the Thai coastline, with foliage greens and aqua blues flaunting a lovely warmth and presence, while the red hues of blood and the bouncing ball are appropriately bold. Fleshtones remain stable and true throughout, black levels achieve a good degree of depth, and the textures of tree trunks, tattered clothing, and caked dirt come across well.
The tsunami scene is frighteningly realistic, with stunning clarity thrusting us into the forceful tide. Close-ups are equally crisp, especially several tight shots that highlight facial details in a natural manner. Banding, crush, noise, and pixilation are all absent, and no digital enhancements disrupt the purity of the picture. All in all, this is an excellent rendering of a difficult film, and it makes the tragic events depicted feel uncomfortably immediate.
With power, nuance, and marvelous clarity, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track makes us feel the tsunami as well as see it. From the formidable force of the cascading tide to the subjective gurgling as the principals are swept underwater and then struggle back to the surface, the audio raises the stakes of this highly effective scene, taking us out of our comfort zone and bringing us as close as a film can to experiencing this devastating phenomenon. The surrounds get a nice workout during the signature sequence, aided by strong stereo separation up front and a wide dynamic range that captures all the furor without any break-up or distortion. Crisp accents punctuate the water's roar, as chunks of debris are ripped apart by the wild current, while subtleties, such as the gentle chirps of birds and chatter of crickets waft across the rear channels during quieter scenes.
Excellent bass frequencies maximize every rumble, almost shaking the room as the tsunami crashes onto the shore. Yet despite all the activity, dialogue never gets lost; the mix prioritizes conversations well, so every word is clear and comprehendible. The music score by Fernando Velazquez blends well into the audio fabric, remaining largely unobtrusive, but when it occasionally bursts forth, its purity of tone and fine fidelity make a statement.
This dazzling track complements the visuals in top-flight fashion, building upon them to create a lifelike atmosphere that's simultaneously impressive and frightening.
A few extras round out the disc and provide some mild insight on the making of this ambitious, inspiring film.
'The Impossible' salutes the power of the human spirit in the best sense of that overused phrase, treating its subject with respect, empathy, and uncompromising realism. Adeptly balancing a harrowing event with an inspirational tale of courage and survival, J.A. Bayona's film avoids clichés and syrupy sentiment as it paints a memorable portrait of indefatigable will and the tough ties that bind. Excellent performances from Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and the young Tom Holland make this amazing true-life tale all the more believable, and the recreation of the tsunami is stunningly real. Excellent video and superb audio enhance the experience, but unfortunately, supplements are a bit skimpy. Though some viewers might crave more plot, this is a meticulous and touching depiction of one family's difficult journey, told with sensitivity and grace, and it earns a hearty recommendation.