Naomi Watts and genuine earnestness catapults ‘The Impossible’

September 27th, 2012

We’ve seen natural disasters on film before, but never like “The Impossible.” From the cast to the directing to the effects, this is one disaster drama that will stick with its audience for quite a while. Forget “Volcano” and “Twister,” This is a real disaster movie, one that somehow manages to be utterly crowd-pleasing while still keeping its lurid realism intact.

The true story of “The Impossible” revolves around a family of five on vacation in Thailand in 2004 and what happens to them when the Indian Ocean tsunami hits them straight on. Ewan McGregor plays Henry and Naomi Watts plays Maria, with Tom Holland tackling the role of Lucas, their oldest son. The family is separated in the wave, with Maria and Lucas on one side and Henry and his other two children on the other. The film chronicles their efforts to survive and search through the unimaginable devastation to find one another again.

Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” showed us a brief glimpse of an untapped cinematic phenomenon: a first-person view of an oncoming tsunami. It was a great scene, involving and gripping. But then it was over. The consequences and damages were skipped. So now, we get a movie that fully delves into that awful aftermath.

False notes are almost to be expected with a heartstrings-thrumming drama, as they tend to follow a hackneyed formula that includes forced moments of crying, hugging, and hammy musical swells. One would assume a based-on-true-events survival story about a family coming back together after a tsunami would be sickening full of that formula, but “The Impossible” surprised me. There’s a level of truth and a general lack of exaggeration that makes a real impact when the film goes down the emotional route.

The best scene (don’t worry; there are still quite a few more) is the massive wave scene, where we have a first-hand look at Maria and Lucas trying to stay afloat amid the raging waters full of deadly debris. The direction of the scene makes us genuinely feel like we’re in the scene and the result is more terrifying than any slasher flick. But even as the 30-minute-long big wave may be the visual showstopper of “The Impossible,” the characters  manage to keep our interest for the rest of the film. By the end’s climax, we’re invested enough where we feel the full weight of their plight.

The way the film approaches its people who populate its plot is admirable, as they are written to do justice to the real people rather than just making give-big-actors-an-award roles. I can’t think of any recent performance quite as gut-wrenching as Naomi Watts’, and I have yet to see an actress more deserving of a Best Actress Oscar this year. Her work is phenomenal. McGregor is assuredly serviceable, but I didn’t find him at the same level of hysteria as Watts. We also have arguably the best cast of children actors in a drama, as Tom Holland and the boys who play his brothers are astoundingly capable at their roles.

The emotions it evokes are not just effective. They are churning. Director J.A. Bayona, who showed in “The Orphanage” a talent of making enrapturing violence, throws all kinds of groan-inducing graphic visuals at us. From maimed limbs to agonized shrieks, there are moments so repulsively real that they threaten to make us turn our heads.

The writing is elementary but it easily provides a conduit for the directing and the acting to soar. The only problem is keeping the pacing interesting. The style of writing, by nature, sucks out a majority of the tension and emotion by the time the second half rolls around. The result of already knowing the ending is that, at the hour mark, we’re basically left waiting around for the inevitable to occur. There are no surprises after that. But the first half is one of the most flawless disaster drama ever made. I can’t think of a time I was more hopelessly invested in a character’s pain as I was here.

Thankfully, this is a story where knowing the ending doesn’t make the journey not worth having. We’re kept engrossed throughout most of the film and we cheer when the much-deserved ending arrives. “The Impossible” proves to be vast, personal, and rousing in all the right ways. This is what can happen when a disaster movie has more on its mind than mindless action and cheap thrills.