Film Review: The Impossible

Spectacular and emotionally riveting re-creation of one family’s nightmarish ordeal while vacationing in Thailand during the historic 2004 tsunami is the kind of classy disaster pic that should attract broad audiences.

The Impossible, based on the true story of a Spanish family on vacation in Thailand who were separated and nearly killed by the most destructive tsunami on record (an estimated 300,000 people died), is the latest film to prove that nothing is impossible to depict on the big screen and, if done well, affords an extraordinary visceral experience. The film also marks Spain’s assured step (pace Pedro Almodóvar) into the major leagues.

Skillfully meshing macro and micro elements, director Juan Antonio Bayona (who previously scored with the horror entry The Orphanage) realistically conveys the enormity and unimaginable force of the massive floods and walls of pummeling water that attacked Asia’s southeast coast but also goes effectively close-up and personal for the intense emotional and physical trials of parents and their three sons swept away and separated without warning.

It’s Christmastime 2004 at Thailand’s lovely Orchard Beach resort, the vacation getaway for the Japan-based Bennett family (here British rather than Spanish). They are Maria (Naomi Watts), a doctor who has sidelined her practice to be a wife and mother; businessman husband Henry (Ewan McGregor); and their three sons: 12-year-old Lucas (Tom Holland), seven-year-old Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and five-year-old Simon (Oaklee Pendergast).

As vacationers take advantage of the balmy climes, sparkling sun-blasted blue skies, inviting resort pools and perfect beaches, the tsunami unexpectedly strikes, sending forceful, hill-high waves, one after the other, tearing onto the shore and across the land, wrecking buildings, toppling trees and sending people, cars, whatever in its path into a racing river of debris rushing inland.

On what cruelly appears to be a perfect day, Maria first perceives the subtle but suspicious signs of increasing winds, weird rumblings and squealing, fleeing birds. But there’s no time for her to gather her family and flee. She soon is carried away and, bruised and bleeding, sustains a serious leg injury but miraculously finds Lucas amidst the massive wipeout. Together they manage to mount a tree to cling to.

Lucas, for the first time in charge, cares for his injured mother and helps them find a lift inland with some primitive natives where they might get help. At a sprawling hospital with appalling conditions (utter chaos, filthy floors), the wounded Maria finds a bed, but Lucas soon loses her when he steps away to help others find their loved ones.

Meanwhile, a beaten-up Henry is reunited with his two younger sons near the resort site. Determined to find Maria and Lucas, he sends Thomas and Simon to the mountains for safe ground and embarks upon a solo search. Cellphones are hard to come by, as owners guard battery power for their own searches. When Henry meets Karl (Sönke Möhring), a German tourist who might have lost his family, the latter kindly lets Henry use his phone. Henry breaks down while trying to convey his news to a relative in the U.K. and Karl insists he make a more reassuring follow-up call.

What ensues is the suspenseful story of what transpires at Maria’s hospital, whether Maria will survive her serious injuries, and how the family may eventually come together. Along the way, Geraldine Chaplin shows up as an old woman, another storm victim, who gives courage to the younger sons.

The result of Bayona’s determination to be ruthlessly authentic, The Impossible required almost two years’ work on Thailand locations (many the actual ones) and on more than 60 Spanish studio sets and in a huge water tank. This herculean effort is up there on the screen. The impressive realism isn’t just due to state-of-the-art special and visual effects, including the breathtaking resort flooding, but to the film’s exceptional audio design that builds suspense and seals the illusion of major catastrophe.

Watts and McGregor contribute some of the best performances of their careers, but much credit must also go to the child actors and Bayona’s ability to get such beautifully nuanced performances from them. Are Oscar noms blowing in a more benign wind?