"The Impossible" was inspired by the true story of a vacationing family that survived the Indian Ocean tsunami that killed some 230,000 people and displaced 1.7 million more when it smashed against much of Southeast Asia on Dec. 26, 2004.
In the context of such devastation, the trauma suffered by the film's lost, weary and muddy Brits seems relatively insignificant. On some levels, these folks might as well be at Bonnaroo, except that when you throw up at Bonnaroo, you probably don't throw up a 3-foot strand of seaweed.
Maria, Henry and their three sons begin their winter vacation in Thailand, looking forward to a few days in tropical paradise. But on the morning ...
Rating: PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity
Length: 107 minutes
Released: December 21, 2012 NY/LA
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Writer: Sergio G. Sánchez
Rated PG-13 for intense disaster sequences, with disturbing images and brief nudity.
Presented via impeccable digital trickery and even more impressive — and dangerous — physical effects (including the use of large-scale water tanks), the re-creation of the tsunami and its aftermath on the seaside resort area of Khao Lak, Thailand, is stunning. The impact of the wave is convincing and frightening — a stupendous if nerve-wracking example of cinema's ability to enable audiences to feel as if they are sharing in an awful, immense experience from the safety of their seats. (Moviegoers may remember that Clint Eastwood previously depicted the Thai tsunami in his 2010 film "Hereafter.")
Unfortunately, when the water recedes, so does much of the tension. The production design — the ruined landscapes of collapsed homes, snapped palm trees and twisted automobiles — becomes more interesting than the characters who inhabit it, which is not to diminish the wonderful work of the actors. (As abused here as any actress since Marilyn Burns in the first "Texas Chain Saw Massacre," Naomi Watts on Thursday became a worthy Best Actress Oscar nominee.)
"The Impossible" casts Watts and Ewan McGregor as a globe-trotting wife and husband, Maria and Henry. She's a temporarily retired doctor, he's a businessman based in Japan, and they're spending Christmas in Thailand with their three young sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin, excellent) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). Maria and Henry obviously are well-educated, affluent Europeans for whom the so-called Third World is a place of play and economic opportunity.
When the tsunami hits, the seriously injured Maria and the brave Lucas, who appears to be about 12, are separated from Henry and the two smaller boys. Neither group knows if the other is alive, and the bulk of Sergio G. Sánchez's screenplay chronicles Henry's search for the rest of his family while Lucas accompanies his gravely ill mother to a crowded, chaotic makeshift hospital.
Some writers have criticized "The Impossible" for its Eurocentric viewpoint — for its focus on wealthy visitors rather than on the residents whose homes and livelihoods were destroyed. The problem isn't the characters, however, but the story. Once we learn that the family members are alive and essentially out of danger, it's only a matter of time until they reunite, whether in Thailand or perhaps in England, where a well-to-do support group of in-laws and grandparents is waiting.
The filmmakers don't want to acknowledge this, however. The movie's name is a tipoff that Sánchez and Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (directing his second feature, and his first in English) have brought a wide-eyed wonder-of-life approach to this material, making it a sympathetic if inferior companion piece to a more imaginative current survival story, "Life of Pi."
A more accurate title for "The Impossible" might be "The Lucky" or "The Coincidental": The family's fate as seen here seems no more "impossible" than any other outcome, and if we accept the Brits' survival as something miraculous, what does that imply about the tens of thousands of Asians who were wiped out?When a wise crone (Geraldine Chaplin) bonds with one of the boys over their fascination with the light from distant stars, "The Impossible" reveals itself to be a sort of New Age disaster movie. (Similar sentiment marred Bayona and Sánchez's previous collaboration, the otherwise wonderful 2007 ghost story "The Orphanage.")
Spectacle aside, the movie is best enjoyed as a celebration of family and even human love, elevated by several grace notes that are a tribute to Bayona's skill with actors. A moment in a tree involving Maria and a rescued little boy name Daniel is very sweet, while Lucas' distress and embarrassment at seeing his mother's bare breast, even in a moment of crisis, is very authentic.