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THE IMPOSSIBLE – The Review

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The release of the original AIRPORT in 1970 began a new type of cinema genre: the “disaster” movie. For the next ten years or so the big studios (and some small) hit upon the formula of throwing a whole bunch of stars together (often providing work for many former screen gods and goddesses) and have them try to survive a catastrophe. One producer, Irwin Allen, became known as the disaster movie king with THE POSIEDON ADVENTURE and THE TOWERING INFERNO. These films were thought of as grand escapist entertainments, popcorn flicks. But what about a disaster that really happened? True life disasters have been the backdrop for many Hollywood epics such as SAN FRANCISCO and IN OLD CHICAGO. Those films had fictional characters in stories set in those calamities. THE IMPOSSIBLE is the story of how a real family dealt with a real event that we all saw news reports of several years ago. It’s a more intimate tale than those Allen extravaganzas, but the emotions are as large as any of the cast lists and budgets as those 70’s box office champs. This is about the power of Mother Nature and the determination of a family.

This family consists of mom Maria (Naomi Watts), dad Henry (Ewan McGregor), teenage son Lucas (Tom Holland) and his grade-school aged brothers Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). They’ve decided to spend the end of the year holidays at a gorgeous beachfront resort on Thailand. Everyone seems to be having a wonderful time except the sullen, surly Lucas (ah, the teen years!). Then the day after Christmas 2004, early in the morning as they frolic in the pool, a powerful tsunami hits. The gigantic title waves destroy everything and separate Maria and Lucas from Henry and Thomas and Simon. The story follows mother and eldest son as they try to get to safety, survive, and hopefully re-unite with the rest of the family in a faraway, foreign land that’s been transformed into a chaotic hellscape.

The heavy dramatics of this horrific situation require gifted actors to relay the characters’ raw emotions, and this cast is more than up to the challenge. Joslin and Pendergast are indeed adorable, but avoid the stereotypes of child actors. We want to protect these sweet tykes from all the evils and dangers. They’re naturals. McGregor showed a bit of his paternal nature in the Star Wars prequels, but here he gives us a fabulous film father, full of courage and determination. He’s not super-human, though. A scene in which he makes a cell phone call to England is heart-wrenching as all his emotions bubble up to the surface. Watts gets most of the parental screen time and this is some of her best film work. Maria may be the most physically battered of the family, but somehow she pushes through the pain to live on and bring the family back together. Amazingly, she’s also able to inspire her eldest son. Holland as Lucas has perhaps the most challenging role and gives one of this year’s best performances. In the opening scenes he’s snippy and rude to everyone. Lucas is almost an adult and is eager to distance himself from his much younger siblings and, especially, his parents. But when the tides rise he realizes how much he still cares for them all, particularly when he and his Mom encounter a six year-old all alone in the floating debris. Later, Lucas is able to put his selfishness aside and help those much worse off than himself. It’s great work from a remarkable young actor at the beginning of a hopefully long screen career.

Director Juan Antonio Bayona (THE ORPHANAGE) has done a masterful balancing act with this film. There is the grand scale tragedy, with incredible special effects topping the flood sequence in Clint Eastwood’s HEREAFTER. The tidal waves that approach the resort seem to crash forward like classic B-movie giant behemoth. But they are no fantasy, no guy-in-a-rubber-suit. Maria’s stunned confused stare turns quickly to horror and panic as she tries to get to her loved ones. Later, we wince in pain as the rushing waters batter her body and tear her flesh. And then there’s the confusion as she and Lucas try to communicate with the staff at the overwhelmed hospital (the wounded occupy every hallway and closet space). Bayona goes beyond the devastation to explore this family dynamic. It takes the fury of nature to make these people truly cherish their life together. The scenes of death and destruction are powerful, but just as memorable is the love and determination of this couple as they struggle to find each other. Yes, seeing the kids in danger may be tough for parents (well, anyone really) to watch, but its celebration of family will touch your heart. THE IMPOSSIBLE is a disaster film with a stirring paternal love story at its heart.

5 Out of 5 Stars

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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