What’s puzzling about “The Impossible,” without wholly diminishing its effectiveness, is that the film is based on a tsunami separating a Spanish family and directed by Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona, but Anglo actors have been cast. The switch almost seems like a cynical ploy to be more accessible to wider audiences who want to see two movie stars in an inherently dramatic true story. However, getting hung up on that choice is like not understanding the movie business for what it is. That aside, “The Impossible” is a harrowing and effectively well-made, not to mention emotionally draining, film.
Bayona made 2007’s “The Orphanage,” a classily creepy and hauntingly heartbreaking horror film about the loss of a child, and now he’s made another kind of horror story. Based on the real-life 2004 event of an Indian Ocean tsunami doing some damage in Southeast Asia, the film narrows the focus to one family. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry, a British couple living in Japan but spending Christmas at a beach resort in Thailand with their three boys, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). During the afternoon of December 26th, with the family by the pool, a gust of wind comes in and then a rush of water slams through the resort. Trees fall, houses are demolished, and the family gets separated. A badly injured Maria and eldest son Lucas manage to stick together, as do Henry and the two youngest boys, but neither party knows the other is alive. Once Maria and Lucas make it to the crowded hospital, Henry doesn’t give up hope, making sure Thomas and Simon are safe together and setting out to find his wife and son.
Before a sense of foreboding builds steadily, screenwriter Sergio G. SÃ¡nchez gives us minimal getting-to-know-them setup, but the actors are given the task of filling in the holes when they endure emotional heights and face physical challenges. Watts, especially, is not only put through the wringer in one emotionally and physically demanding performance, but she beautifully conveys the anguish of a mother who must become the child. McGregor is also strong, especially in one powerfully devastating moment when he thinks he’s lost members of his family and borrows a cell phone to call his father-in-law. But ultimately, it’s 16-year-old Holland who carries the whole thing; he’s such an unaffected “child actor” and undergoes a fully convincing arc from petulant brat to courageous, compassionate young man.
The tsunami itself is one of the most gut-wrenching, intensely visceral and prodigiously rendered disaster events captured on film. It feels all too real and technically seamless, bound to awe and make one feel as if they’re swept up in the water, too. (For what it’s worth, it makes the tsunami that kicked off Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” look like false spectacle.) Also, the injuries Watts suffersâ€”a bloody gash behind her knee and slashes on her chestâ€”are so brutally severe that the make-up department deserves a pat on the back. But where the film seems to stumble a bit is in the writing, particularly the contrived home stretch. Coincidences and near-misses are laid on so thick that suspense is momentarily replaced by frustration. Even when we realize we’re going to be let off the hook (the family survives!), the “Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey”-ish conclusion is still unexpectedly affecting, with or without manipulative musical cues, and feels emotionally earned.
Be that as it may that the real family wasn’t British, “The Impossible” tastefully acknowledges the tragic event and the 200,000 lives that were lost. After all, this isn’t a sensationalistic Hollywood disaster pic; it’s a human-based disaster story that’s sobering, sensitive, and emotionally generous about the fight for survival, the fragility of human life, and the unconquerable human spirit. It’s frightening how quickly life can be taken away, and this film doesn’t flinch at such a fearful realization.
114 min., rated PG-13.