Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘The Impossible’: A Harrowing Tale of Humanism in the Face of Catastrophe

The 2004 tsunami from an intimate perspective
June 2, 2020 Updated: June 5, 2020

PG-13 | 1h 54min| Drama, History, Thriller | 4 January 2013 (USA)

On Dec. 26, 2004, a fissure occurred between the Burma and India plates that caused a 9-plus magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, in the Indian Ocean. This resulted in massive tsunamis that branched outward to devastate the surrounding coastal areas. One of the worst-hit places was a region of Thailand called Khao Lak, which is dotted with both charming villages and seaside resorts. In all, an estimated 230,000–285,000 people died in the catastrophe.

Needless to say, making a film about this tragic eventone of the worst natural disasters in recorded historyrequired a careful approach, so horrible was the loss of life. Director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez seemed acutely aware of this when they produced the “The Impossible” in 2012. It was released the following year in the United States.

Rather than show multiple tragic events happening to random characters, the filmmakers did something different. They told the story through the more intimate lens of a single family—the Bennetts, based on the real-life experiences of the Belón-Álvarez family—consisting of husband Henry (Ewan McGregor), wife Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three young boys, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast).

family on vacation
A family on vacation: (center, L–R) Oaklee Pendergast, Tom Holland, Ewan McGregor, Samuel Joslin, and Naomi Watts, in “The Impossible.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

From Family Warmth to Devastating Separation

The film begins with the family traveling to Thailand. Henry is taking a break from his job so that he can spend Christmas vacation with his family in Khao Lak. The opening scenes show the touching interplay between the family members as they relax and experience their beachside resort to the fullest. These sentimental scenes (complete with cello and piano) are interspersed with dollops of existential dread as if something ominous is looming just over the horizon.

They awake the next day (Boxing Day, the day after Christmas) and are enjoying a sunny day at the resort’s pool when signs emerge to show that something’s not quite right: A phone suddenly cuts out, a paper blows away in a rapidly growing sea-wind, and sounds rumble in the distance. The tsunami hits the resort so swiftly, all that the vacationers and locals can do is stare in awe at the first giant wave as it crashes toward them.

dad clutches his sons
Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor) clutching his small sons as he first sights the tsunami, in “The Impossible.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Bennetts get swept away and apart in the hail of brown water. However, Maria and oldest son Lucas manage to find each other in the powerful torrents. But just when you think things couldn’t get worse, Maria gets horribly wounded, and it’s up to Lucas to help her survive when the waters finally recede. The two are soon discovered by local Thai villagers who risk their own lives to help them to relative safety.

Meanwhile, Henry finds himself closer to the shore among mountains of debris and bodies. It is here that the immense scale of the carnage wrought by the tsunami becomes evident. Henry, still in a state of shock, finds sons Thomas and Simon. However, believing he is doing the right thing at that time, he sends them off with a band of rescuers in a truck; he is determined to search for his wife, whom he still believes is amid the wreckage.

The family is now split up into three parties—Henry, Maria and Lucas, and young boys Thomas and Simon. The film skillfully weaves a thread through the storylines of these three parties as they desperately try to locate one another in the chaos. It also shows the absolute selflessness (and often poise) of the local Thai people, as they struggle to help strangers in the wake of the cataclysmic event.

Kindness of Thai people
The kindness of the Thai people helped save the life of Maria Bennett (Naomi Watts), in “The Impossible.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Why This Movie Works

Instead of fixating on the special effects (CGI) aspect of the disaster, as so many movies do these days, we get to watch a rousing human drama unfold. Will Henry overcome his feelings of guilt for sending his youngest sons off with rescuers? Will Maria’s severe wounds soon leave Lucas all alone? What will become of Thomas and Simon, too young to fully comprehend the tragedy unfolding around them?

mother and son in disaster
Naomi Watts and Tom Holland star in “The Impossible.” (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Watts stands out as a courageous yet selfless person who is determined to help others around her, even in her dire condition. In one incredibly touching scene, as Maria lay on a hospital bed in the middle of an open medical bay, she encourages Lucas to go and help others in need, since he’s “good at it.” Even as her lifeblood is ebbing out of her, she intends to impart a final message of altruism to him.

Holland is also outstanding as the oldest son, who displays a maturity beyond his age. His facial expressions convey a wide range of emotions without having to say a word.

In my opinion, “The Impossible” is definitely the best film of 2012, and many other years for that matter. It’s also timely; it shows us that even in times of great chaos and peril, everyone can still reach out to each other with kindness and compassion.

‘The Impossible’
Director: J.A. Bayona
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 54 mins
Release Date: Jan. 4, 2013 (USA)
Rated: 4 stars out of 5

Ian Kane is a filmmaker and author based out of Los Angeles. To see more, visit DreamFlightEnt.com or contact him at Twitter.com/ImIanKane