Impossible: Tsunami Melodrama

Representing the impressive American debut of Spanish director J.A. Bayona, “The Impossible” is an ultra-realistic, emotionally powerful tale based on the traumatic experience of one family's survival during the horrendous 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.

Bayona, who previously has directed the fantastic horror feature, “The Orphanage,” has chosen the right material for his skills and talents, a story that balances the horrific elements of a natural disaster with the more intimate touches of a genuine family melodrama.

In the lead roles of the parents, Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor render inspired, compelling performances that may represent their finest efforts to date. It’s particularly gratifying to report that almost a decade after becoming a star, Watts has found the proper role to reaffirm her status as a major dramatic actress.

Though both actors are splendid, I think Watts has better chances to garner an Oscar nomination as Best Actress (her second, following the one in 2003, for “21 Grams,” opposite Sean Penn), if only because the male category is particularly crowded this year.

When the chronicle begins, Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three sons spend their winter vacation in Thailand, looking forward to some quality time in the tropical paradise.

However, as is well known from the extensive media coberage, on the morning of December 26, as the family relaxes around the pool after their Christmas celebration the night before, a terrifying roar rises up. Initially, the utterly shocked Maria freezes in fear, as a huge wall of black water races across the hotel grounds toward her.

I am hesitant to describe “The Impossible” as as an inspirational disaster movie, because of the culturally loaded meanings of these two terms. But in telling the unforgettable account of one particular family caught in the chaos and mayhem of one of the worst natural catastrophes of our time, the movie combines elements of both of the aforementioned genres, with minimal reliance on spectacle and special effects.

Director Bayona and his scribe, Sergio G. Sanchez (who also penned “The Orphanage”), know that the real locus of the true-life terror is located in the unexpected displays of compassion, courage and kindness that Maria and her family encounter during the darkest hours of their lives. His greatest achievement is in balancing an epic tale with a more intimate and devastating story, highlighting in the process human qualities that are nothing short of uplifting.

It somehow feels strange that almost a decade has already past since that fateful Christmas of 2004. When the sea roared, devouring Thailand’s western coast, it became the worst natural disaster ever to strike that country. The deadly tidal waves, crashing onto Thailand's beach communities in short (about 10-minute) intervals, resulted in numerous deaths and missing individuals.

Once the broader context is displayed—quite impressively, I might add–Bayona sets out to explore the psycho-social dynamics of the family member, husband and wife Henry and Maria and their sons Lucas, Simon and Thomas, during the aforementioned fatal crisis. Quickly separated and seriously injured, they nonetheless struggle to survive and to reunite in a remarkable story of perseverance and love, while reaffirming their unshakable faith in each other, as well as in the thousands of strangers who were also victims of the catastrophe.

To his credit, Bayona goes beyond the generalities of the survival film genre, raising such difficult and provocative questions as who you want to survive for, and in what specific way. In addition to the film’s daunting technical aspects, Bayona has met another, more remarkable challenge, namely, how to create and then maintain the right tone in balancing real-life, suspenseful horror with the triumph of the human spirit, without exploiting the catastrophe and without overly glorifying the courage and sacrifice of the family members in facing the disaster.

Bayona: Talent to Watch

Bayona's hit horror movie, “The Orphanage,” which world-premiered at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival to standing ovation, later represented Spain at the 80th Oscar Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. The film garnered numerous awards, winning seven Goya Awards (Spain’s Oscars), and becoming the highest grossing Spanish-language film in the history of Spain and one of the most the most successful Spanish-language films abroad. Strangely enough, “The Orphanage”did not do well at the U.S., though it established Bayona's reputation as a talent to watch.

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