Saturday, December 22, 2012

"The Impossible"

 4.5 / 5 

By chance, I stumbled across the remarkable Channel 4 documentary "Tsunami: Caught on Camera" about a year ago and was mesmerized by the enormity of a calamity that is barely comprehensible.  A quarter of a million people died in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, and tourists were only a fraction of them, so I was dubious about The Impossible.

Would it be, well, possible to capture the scope and scale of the devastation, both physical and emotional, through the lens of Hollywood, with beautiful people like Ewan MacGregor and Naomi Watts suffering nobly through wet clothes and unglamorous makeup?

The opening moments of The Impossible don't bode well: Here are fair-haired white folks anguishing over spoiled-people problems like whether she'll have to go back to work as a doctor if he loses his job.  Then, without warning, it happens -- and the disaster-movie-veteran reaction takes hold: This had better be good, we'd better be wowed by this big wave.

We are.  That's when The Impossible begins going places most movies wouldn't dare.  It's excruciating, nerve-wracking, nausea-inducing and altogether riveting in its depiction of a family quite literally torn apart by a disaster of unimaginable proportions.

Viewed solely as a technical exercise, The Impossible is extraordinary.  The visual effects are peerless: You can have your Avengers and your Prometheus, here is visual-effects mastery in absolute service of the story.  The omission of The Impossible from the short-list of possible Oscar nominees is shameful, but perhaps explained by the awesome accomplishment here -- not once do you consider that what you are watching is not real.  It makes a similar, shorter sequence in Clint Eastwood's The Hereafter pale by comparison.

But The Impossible aims for more than visceral thrills, and quite wisely steers clear of the Grand Hotel-style dramatics of '70s-era disaster movies.  From the moment the wave strikes, we're with Maria, the mother in the previously pretty family, who miraculously finds her son amid the deadly waters.  This is no feel-good discovery: They wind up lost and alone amid the devastation, horribly injured with no way to know the fate of the others.

The movie focuses tightly on this family, particularly Maria and her young son Lucas (the stunningly good Tom Holland).  She is gravely wounded, and he's the pouty, sullen pre-teen who has to grow up instantly.  There's a simultaneously grueling and touching scene where residents of a wiped-out village find them and offer them care -- and that unprompted humanity is one of the movie's running themes.

Later in the movie, there's a painful moment where Henry, the father, asks one of the film's few Americans to use a cell phone, and the response he gets is certainly a slap in the face for the U.S.A. -- and perhaps rightly so, because the post-disaster scenes the world sees after American tragedies tend to be of looting and chaos, not the kind of stoicism and compassion on display here.

There is much beauty in The Impossible, but it's not visual.  This is one of the most excruciating and terrifying films you'll ever see, unflinching in its depiction of real loss and devastation, not to mention the physical consequences it has on people.  Maria ends up in an overcrowded hospital, clinging to life with Lucas by her side -- until suddenly, wrenchingly, for the second time in an anguished day, he isn't.

The Impossible is an emotional gut-punch, honest and true, bordering on maudlin only in its final 10 minutes or so.

Much has been made over the filmmakers' decision to focus on a nice, white, fair-haired family, and the criticism isn't unfounded.  We see very little of the effects of the tsunami on the Thais themselves.  But, then The Impossible is telling a large story at a very human level, and the only way to do that is to focus tightly on one family.  It's a film that is often impossible to watch without flinching, maybe never more so than the moment Henry finally finds a cell phone and calls his parents back home.  In that scene, The Impossible shows us beautifully, perfectly, the overwhelming depths of despair, isolation and suffering that survivors experienced ... and the compassion and humanity that saw them through.

The Impossible is difficult, gripping and altogether exemplary.

Viewed 12/22/12 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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