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TIFF 2012: 'The Impossible' Helps Us Understand What Tsunamis Really Do

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Sep 11, 2012 | 5:58am EDT

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ALTThe 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated the coastlines of Southeast Asia was a shocking and upsetting experience, no matter who you are or where you were. From the comfort of my home on the East Coast of the United States, I watched news channels and websites as more and more news poured in, the scope of the catastrophe painted clearer and clearer with each passing minute. But it wasn't very tangible. Still images and helicopter video were eerily detached. The cataclysmic natural event was just a news blip, but on the other side of the globe, people were actually experiencing it. That's why The Impossible, while not an entirely successful docudrama, is an absolute must-see. The film takes you there — and it's gut-wrenching.

From director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage), The Impossible follows a British family vacationing in Thailand over the Christmas holiday. On December 26th, 2004, as Harry (Ewan McGregor), Mary (Naomi Watts), and their three young boys lounge around the pool at their ritzy resort, the tsunami strikes. Thanks to hyper-real special effects, the damage caused by the tsunami is fully realized by Bayona. Within seconds of becoming aware of what is going on, Mary and her teenage son Lucas are swept away by the wave. Brown sea water and sharp debris swirl about as the mother and son are carried further inland. When the flood dies down, Mary is nearly broken, her body is ripped with gashes and the flesh of her leg peeled back like a banana. Lucas helps her stumble through the destruction to a tree, which they climb and wait for help that may or may not come.

Someone reportedly fainted at the first Toronto screening of The Impossible, and it's not hard to see why. Bayona depicts the horrors in all their gruesome detail. The terrifying imagery isn't exploitive, but a necessary, eye-opening experience for anyone who has never witnessed disaster first hand (and I'm guessing that's most people). The Impossible starts to lose steam in its second half, when Mary and Lucas' journey takes them to a Thai hospital where the we meet others punished by the hand of Earth. As Mary struggles to stay alive, Lucas aids the other patients, reconnecting families and hoping that he may do the same with his father and two brothers. With soft piano music and warm light, Bayona pulls a Spielberg: he orchestrates nightmarish action then slathers on the schmaltz. The warm and fuzzy turn is over-the-top, but feels necessary. After the intensity of the tsunami, Bayona throws the audience a bone.

The Impossible won't be the most entertaining film of the 2012 holiday season, but it's required viewing. Only a fictional film could effectively recreate the tsunami in as visceral a fashion. To fully understand what it's like to be in the middle of a disaster, to survive it, is something every person on this planet needs to understand.

[Photo Credit: Summit Entertainment]

Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches

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