Monday, January 28, 2013

"Impossible"y Well Crafted

     Over the past decade, director Christopher Nolan has made a place for himself in cinema by taking genres that weren't "respectable" and making movies that critics couldn't help but respect, most notably super-hero and science fiction films.  In taking this approach to film, he follows in the footsteps of Steven Spielberg and the late, great Stanley Kubrick.  Now we can add director J.A. Bayona (and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez) to this list.  I have not seen their Spanish language debut, The Orphanage, but it is apparently one of the better horror films of the twenty-first century.  Now, with their English language debut The Impossible, they attempt to give the disaster flick genre this treatment.  How do they do?  Well...
      Even with the raves coming from the festival circuit, I had limited anticipation for this film's a disaster flick.  So many things can go wrong.  The emotions in such a film are so intense that it is easy for performances to not ring true.  So much time is spent in this genre on action sequences and, well, SURVIVAL, that the time for character development becomes extremely limited.  Then you have the sticky wicket of budgeting complicated special effects sequences in a film unlikely  to pull in the same sort of box office as a blockbuster science fiction flick or any random installment of a comic book or teen novel franchise.
     Then I saw the trailer, and I was titillated. The glimpses of the tsunami sequence looked great.  The emotion seemed palpable and organic.  The actors looked totally invested.  Of course, I know the power of a good trailer.  I must say, however, that The Impossible far surpasses even what I was hoping for after watching the trailer.  The team at work on this film (and the impressive thing is how seamlessly all the elements fit together, especially considering the director's relative lack of experience) found a way to overcome every obstacle inherent in the chosen genre.  This is simply one of the most well made films of the year.
     The problem with the script for most disaster pics is that they try to encompass large casts, often designed to show how (insert disaster) affects members of different sub cultures and/or social strata, you get the idea.  The genre's standard narrative structure only leaves limited time to really get inside the character's heads, and when you split that time among ten, twelve, or twenty main characters, everyone ends up barely more than a stereotype.  This limits dramatic impact severely.  The Impossible gets around that by focusing strictly on one family of five, and even more specifically on the mother, father, and eldest son.
     The smaller central cast also helps keep the intense emotion demanded by the character's circumstances as real as possible.  At no time do we doubt the intense connection between this family.
Naomi Watts (in a recently Oscar nominated lead turn) is as good as she's ever been.  I think the last time she really impressed me was in Fair Game, a film where she played a very buttoned up, even icy role.  To see her work here, where she is so warm, such a good and loving mother, shows just what sort of range this talented lady is working with.  She disappears completely into the role of Maria, and is the heart of the chemistry that the whole family evinces when together.
     Ewan McGregor is one of the most under appreciated actors around, to my mind.  Although he's been nominated by the Globes twice, he has yet to receive any love from the AMPAS, BAFTA (except the Scottish leg), or the BFCA.  This, for a relatively young man (barely in his forties), whose resume already includes Beginners, The Ghost Writer, Big Fish, Little Voice, The Velvet Goldmine, Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, Being Human, and now The Impossible.  It's disgraceful.  He is fantastic here, although not given nearly as much screen time as Watts and Holland.  I've never really seen him as the paternal figure before, and he settles into the role quite gracefully.
     The two younger sons (played by Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast) each give exceptional turns for their ages, but it is Tom Holland who is the soul of the entire film, threatening to overshadow his much lauded parents entirely.  The Impossible is a great coming of age story.  You can almost SEE Holland's character learning, adapting, and searching himself for strength.  One of the strongest juvenile performances in a year full of talented child actors.
     As far as the Visual Effects go, and indeed, every aspect of the technical design and implementation, they are flawless.  Oscar Faura's cinematography is lush in paradise, desolate when paradise is lost, and always keys you right into the perspective of whichever member of the family you are living vicariously through at the moment.  Editors Elena Ruiz and Bernat Vilapova wove the whole thing together with meticulous and precise attention to detail and inspired timing.  Every aspect of this production came with some real challenges, all handily overcome.
     The only real criticism that I've heard of this film is that it doesn't really have a lot of thematic depth, but I think that while it may not have "a message" or "a moral" or anything as tightly wrapped up as that, it is not a shallow film.  Sometimes the best way to reflect the world is just to tell a great story, with characters that you can believe in, and let the meaning emerge from the drama.  The fear, despair, desperation, and hope that we go through with this family, and the things that we see them live through lead us to question ourselves in ways that we come to organically.  How would I hold up in this situation?  How long would I keep looking?  Could I be that brave?  We remember our own greatest moments of confusion, and relief.  The film may not overtly ask us to make grand conclusions about the meaning of life, but it certainly begs reflection upon the things that give life meaning.  I loved it.  5 of 5 stars.

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