As intensely concentrated as its title, The Impossible is one of the most emotionally realistic disaster movies in recent memory — and certainly one of the most frightening in its epic re-creation of the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
As the opening titles stress, it is based on a true story incredible in itself and dramatized with the utmost emotional realism by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona. The fact that the real family of five vacationers who survived the disaster were Spaniards perhaps explains why this lavish production comes from Madrid’s Apaches Entertainment. Edge-of-seat performances by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are fully supported by three child actors who give the story its extraordinary realism and visceral impact that left Toronto audiences alternately clutching their seats and dabbing at damp eyes. It will begin rolling out in Europe in October and in the U.S. at Christmastime through Summit.
This accomplished work is only Bayona’s second film, and like his thriller debut The Orphanage — a ghost story that sold internationally — it manages to blend the horrific with the real world as seen through the eyes of children, inevitably suggesting a comparison to Steven Spielberg, though without the magic. Sergio C. Sanchez’s screenplay simply has no time for fanciful moments or side-stories in its straight-arrow account of the terrible disaster. That unwavering sense of purpose, which is dramatically the reuniting of a scattered family, is the film’s great strength, and it keeps viewers tensely engrossed through the entire first hour.
Bayona takes control from his first shot of an airplane roaring past the camera on its flight over the ocean. Aboard it are the handsome young British couple Maria Bennet (Watts) and her husband Henry (McGregor) with their three young sons. Their closeness is quickly established during their first laughing, playful days in a paradise resort in Khao Lak, Thailand. They are in the pool area, Maria with their eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) and Henry playing ball with the younger sons Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin), when a low, forbidding rumble makes them turn toward the ocean.
There is no mystery about what is to come, but Bayona and his bold cinematographer Oscar Faura give it maximum shock value anyway. The wave is re-created not as a towering CGI water wall but rather as tourists in the resort see it coming: a dark brown mass knocking down row after row of thick palm trees, like soldiers falling before an unstoppable force. It sweeps over the holiday-makers before they can protect themselves, hurling cars and buildings before it. Everything disappears under its power, and for 10 harrowing minutes of sustained tension, the nightmare continues. Maria is knocked through a glass wall but emerges in the middle of the swirling debris. Crying and screaming for her son, she miraculously spots him far away, the only human being in a desert of moving water. In utter terror, they attempt to reach each other, constantly pulled apart by the rushing water full of deadly obstacles.
This grim scene is shot without a moment’s respite, leaving the audience almost as anxious and drained as the characters onscreen. Nor is there a breather when the worst seems over, because only when they emerge from the water is the seriousness of Maria’s injuries apparent. Her face is cut up, and the skin has been all but stripped from one of her legs. A doctor by training, she bravely ties a makeshift tourniquet around her thigh, but the excruciating pain never leaves Watts’ face as they forge their way to a hospital with the help of some locals.
Some time later, Henry is alive and screaming their names at the resort, reduced to broken wall and caved-in roofs. Miraculously again, the two small boys are with him. He puts them on a truck bound for safer ground and stays behind to continue his desperate search.
The story now shifts gears to the family’s anxious attempt to find one another, not knowing whether the others are still alive. Although not as dramatic as the film’s first part, the suspense is kept high through the children, each of whom is called on to perform acts of adult heroism. Young Holland in particular is astonishingly good as the terrified but courageous Lucas. Forced into the role of his mother’s protector, he guards her bedside fiercely in the chaos and horror of the crowded hospital, where she sinks in and out of consciousness with the threat of losing her leg, and possibly her life. Touchingly, he helps people search for their loved ones, allowing the theme of empathy for other human beings emerges far more naturally than in most Hollywood scripts.
Watts packs a huge charge of emotion as the battered, ever-weakening Maria whose tears of pain and fear never appear fake or idealized. McGregor, cut and streaked with excessive blood he seems too distraught to wash away, keeps the tension razor-sharp as he pursues his family in a vast, shattered landscape.
High-quality tech work blends seamlessly to create some unforgettable visual imagery greatly enhanced for the powerful use of sounds. Fernando Velazquez’s score is not afraid to step in operatically to push the emotions even farther but at times feels unnecessarily manipulative when everything onscreen is already at a fever pitch.
Production: Apaches Entertainment production in association with Telecinco Cinema, La Trini, Canal Plus
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Marta Etura, Sonke Mohring, Geraldine Chaplin
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Screenwriter: Sergio G. Sanchez
Producers: Belen Atienza, Alvaro Augustin, Enrique Lopez-Lavigne, Ghislain Barrois, Jaime Ortiz de Artinano
Executive producers: Sandra Hermida, Javier Ugarte
Director of photography: Oscar Faura
Production designer: Eugenio Caballero
Rated PG-13, 107 minutes