From Jaws and The Exorcist all the way to the slasher flicks of the ‘80s, all horror films have had one element in common: they are essentially films about survival. Whether it’s people trying to make it through the night with a serial killer on the lam, or entire societies trying to make it after nature or the supernatural have unleashed a plague on them, the horror genre is ultimately about how much we must endure in order to prove we are creatures who crave life. This is why it’s slightly surprising to revisit the critical reception to The Impossible and realize that almost nobody dared to call it a genre picture.
Regardless of what the sappy trailer, the touchy subject matter and the Oscar nominated performances made you think, The Impossible is as much a heartwarming family drama as The Sound of Music is a film about Nazis, essentially both films grabbed a peripheral story and used it to exploit the particularities of their genre, both with wonderful results.
The film, directed by J.A. Bayona opens inside a plane where we meet Maria (Naomi Watts), her husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their children Lucas, Thomas and Simon (played by Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast respectively). The family is on its way to Thailand to celebrate their Christmas holiday in what they think will be paradise, little would they know that just a few days later, they would find themselves in the middle of one of the deadliest tsunamis in recorded history.
The Impossible, like any other horror picture, takes no time to throw its characters into the eye of chaos, as just a few scenes after the opening we find Maria and Lucas trying to swim towards each other as corpses, cars and trees float past them. Bayona, a masterful creator of suspense and action, leaves us no time to even wonder what happened to the other family members, for all our attention is set on whether Maria and Lucas will be able to make it.
We follow them, in shock, exhausted and staggering, through muddy fields and across desolate roads, while Maria, badly wounded and with torn flesh hanging from her chest and legs, tries to remain strong for her son. When the film begins, the plot sets forward a dynamic between them that the whole film seems to center on, but surprisingly The Impossible presents us with several axis, none of which undermine the prominence or importance of the others.
After a while we indeed discover that Henry and his youngest children are alive as well (hence, that which is seemingly impossible) and they will spend the rest of the film trying to reunite. Given that when the film starts we learn that this is “based on a true story”, we can take for granted the fact that there must be some sort of happy ending for these characters. At least one of them must have survived in order to tell their story. This doesn’t mean that the film fails in creating pure suspense and terror, given that at every moment we suspect that we’ll see one of the lead characters meet a gruesome demise.
Bayona gained worldwide notoriety with The Orphanage, a Spanish gothic horror film that failed in every way that The Impossible succeeds. While the former allowed the conventions of the genre to determine the course of its plot, the latter smartly discovers that a great genre picture can be discovered in almost every possible event, without allowing it to lose its essence. In both films, Bayona centers on a very strong female character, more specifically a mother, who tries at all costs to protect her offspring.
In The Impossible, the director was lucky enough to have cast the always underrated Watts, who turns in a performance for the ages. She gives in to the physicality of the role, without forgetting that there must also be a human core to the destruction surrounding her body. She spends most of the story covered in mud and blood and traumatic environments that vividly transmits to us her physical and emotional pain. Indeed, as she hovers between the world of the living and the dead, her visage, now literally grey, is positively zombie-like. Yet the human within is still seen deep in her bruised, bloodshot eyes. Even unable to speak, the actress communicates so much love, fear and just pure emotion with her eyes that we don’t need words to understand what she’s going through. This is a performance that breaks the heart, as much as it inspires, especially because of the way in which she allows herself to go into the confines of darkness (it’s no coincidence that she’s reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when the film begins).
The Impossible was also showered with senseless accusations of whitewashing, with some suggesting that it devoted itself to the suffering of a Caucasian family in the midst of an event that resulted in the demise of thousands of Asians. To defend the film from these accusations feels somewhat insulting, but it must be done. For starters, we have got to acknowledge that films cannot be about everything. Does anyone condemn Casablanca for not being narrated from the Moroccan point of view? Has anyone ever complained that Gone with the Wind should’ve been seen through the point of view of the slaves? To a less racially inclined observation, is there anything inherently wrong with the fact that The Godfather isn’t told from Kay’s point of view?
Films, and art in general, are all told from a subjective viewpoint. Therefore to accuse this film of being “too white”, is the equivalent of accusing Hispanic productions of not being white enough. As long as there are racial issues, there will always be someone on the losing side.
Yet the truth is that in no way does Bayona ever suggest that these people are more important than locals. Poignantly, Lucas (Tom Holland), first portrayed as a typical self-absorbed teenager, undergoes an enormous coming of age ‘ritual’, if you will, as the man he will become—compassionate, aware of others, and thoughtful—manifests in the acts of a selfless boy.
In fact, using the cleverly subdued bookends, we come to realize that the event is an eye opener for this family. The very last shot featuring Watts, contains such indescribable horror that perfectly encapsulates all the issues of white guilt, racial injustice and social inequity that a more “educational” film would’ve ever contained. Even during the tsunami sequences and during every other scene afterwards, Bayona’s camera never shies away from showing us the horrors being endured by other people, regardless of their race.
If a story of survival of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Thailand, told from a local’s point of view, would’ve been better than the story we have here, we’ll only know once said film is made. Meanwhile, The Impossible should be appreciated for its remarkable sense of suspense, its powerful performances and for being one of the smartest horror films in recent history; one that’s made even scarier because it touches our heart and makes it so vulnerable, that even watching the film we feel scared of how our lives will end.
The Blu-ray presentation is impeccable, to call this film beautiful sounds strange, but its use of light, camera movements and editing actually make it aesthetically pleasing. The transfer is fantastic and the sound mix makes you feel as if you’re living the events yourself. The amount of bonus features is limited to a featurette about the casting (everyone is in love with Tom Holland!) and one about the visual effects which proves to be informative and quite surprising. Overall this is one of the most essential films from 2012, and certainly one of the most misunderstood.