Director J.A. Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sanchez, previous collaborators on 2007's classy supernatural thriller "The Orphanage
," have crafted an entirely different kind of horror story with "The Impossible," one that trades ghostly hauntings for the alarmingly real and unpredictable forces of nature. For British couple Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three children, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), their resort vacation to Khao Lak, Thailand, is intended to be a relaxing, picturesque holiday for everyone. Christmas Day 2004 comes and goes without a hitch, but on December 26, as the family lounges by the pool, an Indian Ocean tsunami approaches without warning, obliterating everything in its path. The family is ultimately separated, swept away like helpless ragdolls, and it is only as the waves subside that a badly injured Maria and eldest son Lucas see the scope of the devastation around them. They do not know if Henry, Thomas and Simon are alive, but must try to press forward and find some sort of help.
First and foremost a study in the precision of naturalistic performances set against the backdrop of one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, "The Impossible" is harrowing, but lacks suspense. Based on a well-documented true account, the human-based story is one with a known outcomeagainst great odds, the family survived and eventually reunitedand must rely instead on the moment-to-moment drama of the characters to carry it to a foregone conclusion. The opening act is deliberately foreboding in its tranquility, with Maria, Henry, and their kids kicking off their holiday with an exotic vacation. All is well, and yet something intangible seems off, conveyed in Maria's eyes the night before the tragedy as she lies in bed, unable to sleep. Clearly, she has no way of knowing what is about to happen.
When the tsunami hits with no more than mere seconds of warning, the results are disorienting and terrifying, brought to awe-inspiring life through visual effects that look all too authentic. A similar set-piece was depicted in 2010's "Hereafter
," but this one trumps that picture in its immediate rawness and detail, aided all the more by Naomi Watts' (2011's "J. Edgar
") anguished turn, struggling desperately to stay above water, get to her eldest son who is just out of reach, and mourn what she believes to have just been the deaths of the rest of her family. It's a tremendous sequence, the seriousness of the situation established in the flattened landscape surrounding them once the waves subside and Lucas' discovery of his mother's injuries (she has been stabbed in the chest and the back side of her knee has been torn open).
With Maria growing weakerone leg-up they have is her medical background and awareness of the severity of her woundsthey go looking for help. In a country suddenly torn apart and ravaged by the forces of nature, there is understandable chaos once they reach a hospital. Unbeknownst to them, husband Henry and their other two kids are together and safe, refusing to leave without finding Maria and Henry. As "The Impossible" segues between their separate experiences, it is the terrific work of all five central actors that keep a story afloat after the centerpiecethe tsunami itselfis over by the half-hour mark. They feel like a genuine familial unit, with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor (2012's "Perfect Sense
") sharing a warm, protective rapport with young newcomers Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast. Geraldine Chaplin (2010's "The Wolfman
") is also memorable in a cameo role as an older woman whom Thomas meets. Looking up the limitless night sky, she remarks that "the world is a beautiful mystery." As easily as life can be given, it can also be taken away. Even at his impressionable young age, Thomas must not face up to this hard truth.
"The Impossible" is thoughtful and well-made, but it also might be a little too simplistic and staightforward for its own good. One could imagine this same story, albeit with less polished effects work, telecast as a cable movie. As close to the truth as director J.A. Bayona claims it to be, the narrow misses between characters searching for each other come off as Hollywood convolution, while the switch of the family from Spanish to British also seems to be a cheap tactic to bring in wider audiences (especially since Bayona is Spanish himself). Even if it doesn't stick around for very long in one's mind after its over, "The Impossible" does captivate as a serious and convincing recreation of hope surviving within a bleak moment in Thailand's recent history.