It was clear from his 2007 debut The Orphanage that Juan Antonio Bayona was a director to look out for and one whose skills at evoking high drama and tension could transcend the trappings of the horror genre. For his second feature, and first English language film, The Impossible, Bayona adapts the true life tale of a family’s struggle for survival in the aftermath of Thailand’s 2004 boxing day tsunami that claimed the lives of 230,000. Quite a leap from a small scale Spanish horror but maybe not for a director with a mentor such as Guillermo del Toro who exec-produced his debut.
Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts star as David and Maria, a professional, British couple holidaying in Thailand with their three sons over the Christmas period when their lives are then turned upside down by the devastating tsunami that destroyed the surrounding coastal zone and tropical resort and split the family in two. The film follows the separated family through the wreckage of the indigenous community as they overcome personal injuries and death defying odds in attempt to find each other in the midst of the carnage.
The cast are compelling, with McGregor exceptionally brilliant as David, weaving unfavourable snobbish nuances into characters that would not have been developed to such an extent in a generic disaster blockbuster. The characters’ imperfections make their battle for survival seem more of a feat given their privileged lifestyles. But despite the terrific performances it is director Bayona who is truly outstanding. His vision of a sun-kissed disaster laced with a heart rendering story of triumph over adversity is both moving and strikingly visceral, handling both the focused character scenes and disaster sequences with masterful proficiency. Not bad going for a director with only one previous feature under his belt.
While at times the soaring, over-dramatic backing scores to emphasise the traumas of the protagonists are laid on a little too strong, where the impact of the performances alone would suffice, The Impossible is still a solid piece of work. With a simple, cohesive storyline there is also the added bonus of the outstanding production value and lavish cinematography making it an exhilarating hybrid of mainstream and art cinema. The engrossing set pieces serve beyond their spectacle without overshadowing the character development or story progression. As the camera dives into the thick of the action, so does the viewer, following two of the main characters being swept away by the flood while grappling with floating debris and sustaining gruesome injuries that test the boundaries of its 12 certification.
Employing the terror nurturing techniques harnessed on The Orphanage, Bayona here aptly applies them to jaw dropping effect in the context of a modern day disaster picture. But despite being based on recent events that shook the world, one is also reminded of the films of Roland Emmerich, whose fantastical, trashy but entertaining depictions of fictional apocalyptic disasters followed a similar narrative path of a family’s search for loved ones in a time of peril. But, central concept comparisons aside, The Impossible is a different beast entirely, crafted with an inventive finesse absent from the work of Emmerich and the Irwin Allen disaster pictures of the 1970s.
Being based on recent events still fresh in people’s minds, The Impossible could never have been crafted and marketed in the vein of a mainstream spectacle with exuberant CG set pieces and wooden archetypal characters sleepwalking through a cliché riddled screenplay. But by using Emmerich’s films as a basis for comparison, it is easier to realise the essential character depth lacking from the likes of The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.
Where The Orphanage succeeded was in its nerve grinding sense of dread, with The Impossible Bayona and screenwriter Sergio Sánchez (who also wrote The Orphanage) successfully build on a more grounded terror through the fear of losing a loved one under horrifying circumstances and being left alone in a ravaged, alien community. This makes The Impossible not only a harrowing, poignant and heart rendering tale with an effects laden show-piece that wipes the floor with any modern blockbuster equivalent but also a fascinating account of an event that shook the world, produced in a manner as respectful as one would have hoped.
The Impossible is released in cinemas on 1st January.