Whenever I cry during movies, it isn’t because I’m a delicate little eggshell. It’s because I’m a nut.
Crying is actually a very willing and deliberate response to a story I have allowed myself to enter into so deeply, aggressively, and insanely that, frankly, I wouldn’t consider myself a respectable Gwen if I didn’t part with a few tears. But could I totally help it? Yes, I could. Two. Just two. That’s how many movies have made me actually—shall we say—lose it. As in, forget getting into the story, I’m just scrambling to survive.
The Impossible is one of them.
Before sitting down with the movie, I had already watched all the YouTube footage I could find about the Indian Ocean tsunami that struck 14 different countries and killed over 230,000 people on December 26, 2004. I’d also seen a breathtaking tsunami in the otherwise spongy and disappointing Clint Eastwood thriller Hereafter. I thought I knew what to expect.
I had no idea.
Suddenly we heard a horrible sound, like the sound of thousands of big planes. Seconds later there was a black wall in front of us. I thought it was death. I couldn’t imagine it was water. It was a monster. The most horrible monster you can imagine. (1)
Even today you can hear the anxiety in María Belón’s voice when she recalls the ferocious 30-foot beast that burst over the wall of the Orchid Resort in Thailand and swept her, her husband, and their three young sons off their feet.
The two youngest boys were in the swimming pool with my husband. Lucas, the eldest, was just in front of me. He had just got out of the pool to fetch the ball we had bought them on Christmas Day. I screamed to my husband and to the kids. I thought it was the end for all of us. Lucas was crying out, “Mama, Mama.”
Then they all disappeared under water. (2)
It was hearing Maria’s story of the disaster and its aftermath—a torturous, chaotic journey through bloody rubble, abandoned hotels, and filthy, overflowing hospitals as her scattered family struggled to find each other—that convinced Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona of his next project. This was a story that must be told to the world. And after some debate, María agreed.
“I’m a very shy person, so I wouldn’t like to tell this story,” she explains in her charmingly imperfect English. “But I thought it was a bit selfish to keep it for myself because…the tsunami…was very universal. Everything that happened there touched very deep feelings, very deep emotions that belong to humanity in tough moments. So I thought it was kind of metaphor of what is living about….Maybe there are people who are not able to tell the story who would like to say, ‘Okay, that is what happened to us.’…That’s why I told the story.”
María worked endlessly with the filmmakers, the cast (especially her handpicked role-player, Naomi Watts), and her own family to make sure The Impossible told the truth of what happened to them and, by representation, thousands of others that nightmarish Boxing Day eight years ago. The result is one of the most harrowing and uneasily heartening cinematic ordeals you will ever endure.
Knowing next to nothing about the movie was a major tension-booster for me, so I won’t spoil the story. (I’ve already given away much more than I knew.) It’s hard to praise this movie enough without going into the details, but who cares, I’m zipping it. Read on for what I can say.
One of the movie’s biggest achievements is what it isn’t. It isn’t sappy. It isn’t melodramatic. It isn’t overcooked. The unremitting trauma, distress, loyalty, and love are frequently overwhelming, but never manipulative—thanks to Bayona’s exquisite directing, stellar acting on all counts, and a restrained musical score from Fernando Velázquez, whose simple cello and piano melodies are both lush and subdued, reverent and glad.
The only oscar nod went to Naomi Watts, whose performance is so raw, so completely stripped of self-awareness, I forgot I didn’t like her. (“I know how it feels, and it feels exactly how you played it,” she was told afterwards by the real María.) But just as solid are Ewan McGregor (uncannily good at crying his eyes out) and the cute-as-buttons Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast as the two youngest sons (are they even acting?).
The true champion, however, is Tom Holland. Then 13 and fresh from the London stage production of Billy Elliot, Holland had never acted in front of a camera when he took on the crucial role of the oldest son, Lucas—and the film’s emotional pivot. Though the entire family comes of age, it is Lucas who astounds us the most with his maturity and responsibility as he gets promoted, in a matter of seconds, from boy to man.
Holland’s magnificent gravitas, range, and credibility rival those of seasoned actors twice his age, and earned him several awards and a push for an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The latter fell through, but high-profile movie offers can be just as flattering, and Holland already has a slew of those. He is currently starring in Kevin Macdonald’s How I Live Now (set to release October 18), in Locke (2014) alongside the likes of Tom Hardy (whom he describes as “very Bane-like…an absolute tank”), and to crown it all, is also teaming up with Chris Hemsworth on the deck of a stranded whaling ship in Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea, based on another historical ocean snafu. (“I’m going to get typecast for a water-disaster actor,” he jokes.)
And then there’s the tsunami itself, which makes the wave in Hereafter look like a kiddy pool. Opting not to use CGI, visual effects supervisor Félix Bergés decided to go with real water in every single shot—even the wide angles. He spent over a year preparing for the terrifyingly violent 10-minute sequence (not counting flashbacks) which featured María’s suggestion that he keep the camera trapped under the water. “I want you to put the audience under the wave, to make them feel like they are under the wave,” she told Bergés, “so that when they surface, there is nothing to be said.”
“It was like being in a washing machine of deadly debris,” remembers another survivor. And that is exactly what the movie looks like. Relentless shots of the furiously indiscriminate monster cartwheeling victims end over end, spinning them in its death-womb, battering them against cars, stabbing them on tree branches, strangling them in telephone wires, left me sickened and exhausted and wondering how on earth this could be PG-13.
The only thing I really wish were different is the title. “The Impossible”? Criminally banal. The name could describe any number of films and gives us no reason to watch this one. Okay, and while I’m quibbling, I would have added just a couple shots of the widespread destruction left in the tsunami’s wake. Bayona knew he was working with a well-briefed audience and was also trying (effectively) to focus the story on a single family and keep us rooted in their POV, but one or two panoramic surveys of the total carnage would have oriented us better and punched even harder.
Two big things struck me deeper than anything else. One, I love my family. I love my people. I’ve seen this happen in real life (under less devastating circumstances): when you’re thrown into the fire together, all the petty squabbles and annoyances are the first to burn. Everyone gains all kinds of perspective—what really matters, whom they really love. “People have told me that after they saw the movie, they went home and hugged their children,” says María. “There’s nothing else to say.” The Impossible made me want to hug my parents and siblings and nephews and wish I already had kids so that I could hug them too. It reminded me of who my best friends truly are.
The second realization is that I can never take life for granted. The movie neither preaches nor moans, but if it did, it’d be along the lines of “Why? What kind of universe do we live in where thousands of families die in less than five minutes, their last breaths that of muddy salt water?” Or, more personal, “How can God allow this? What kind of all-powerful Being would kill His own creatures?” Instead of asking either question, the movie jumps ahead to the answer. Man is a breath. Put our lives on the scale opposite eternity, and we weigh less than the last lungful of oxygen gasped by each drowning victim. We all die. We are mist in the morning, melting fast. The movie shows us how powerless we are, and leaves us thankful for our lives and our brief time under the sun. The only thing missing from that answer—from the movie entirely—is God.
“I became very spiritual; I lived through very deep spiritual moments,” María says. “But there is no God for me.” I was stunned. The young family is overflowing with gratitude at the end, but wherever there is thanks, there must be Someone to thank. Thankfulness must ascend, it must go to a Person. You can’t bottle it up or you’ll go bitter and blind; you can’t let it emanate to some vague life force of the universe, because how does that work? The universe is the thing that just tried to kill you and drowned a quarter of a million people. How can you survive against all odds without feeling that Someone must have kept you alive? How could Maria and Bayona feel the burden to tell this story without recognizing the Storyteller who told it first?
By the end of the movie, I was hungering for the slightest acknowledgement of the God who had so obviously just told the impossible. But by insisting on such a Storyteller (the omniscient, omnipotent kind), I am not in any way implying that the catastrophe was God’s personal judgment on 14 countries, nor do I mean to diminish the horrific sadness of it all. December 26 eight years ago was indeed a tragic day. And I weep with those who weep. But the tragedy of an event doesn’t minimize the Hand that dealt it.
The truth is, we are none of us innocent. We die in a world cursed for our sake, but one that is also healed for our sake. God has taken the curse on Himself and He has promised that wherever there is death, there He will also bring resurrection. The waters that filled the lungs of so many are nothing to the saving waters of Christ’s baptism into which the whole earth is plunged as He works out His salvation—a salvation we celebrate on one day in particular. The morning of the tsunami was an important one, for it was the morning after the day we remember the coming of the One who will put this all to rights.
Witness the grace in the midst of the destruction (realizing that we each deserve far worse), and thank Him who has bought this world with His own blood and is recreating it from the inside out. Thank Him who keeps our tears in His book, though they number many tsunamis.
I’ve hardly ever been more glad to be so beaten up by a movie. I watched it twice without 24 hours—the quickest turnaround of any film. “It’s a pick-me-up,” I declared to my astonished friends who watched it with me the second time and were recovering with dazed eyes and chocolate. I gravitate towards movies that feel like crucibles, that put you through the fire and change you. Those are the ones that save the world.
The Impossible bowled me over with the sheer gift of life and the love of family, and it’s hell. But it’s also heavenly.