The latest natural disaster movie doesn’t bear much resemblance to the Irwin Allen spectacles from the 1970s or the effects-driven blockbusters from Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay during the 1990s.
Instead, The Impossible is a more intimate true-life story of one family’s desperate fight for survival that remains focused on its characters and is more harrowing as a result.
The disaster in question is the December 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that came ashore in Thailand. It certainly spoils an idyllic Christmas vacation for Henry (Ewan McGregor), Maria (Naomi Watts) and their two young boys who are staying at a posh resort along the coast.
The storm strikes suddenly and fiercely, threatening thousands of lives and tearing the family apart. They try to reunite amid the chaos over the next few days, hoping that everyone is alive.
A major highlight is the riveting extended sequence of the tsunami and its aftermath near the beginning of the film, which conveys not only the level of danger to the characters but also the extent of the damage to the landscape. Some of the suffering feels authentic and is difficult to watch at times.
Kudos are due Spanish director J.A. Barona (The Orphanage), however, for skillfully navigating the transition from disaster to relief without sanitizing the recovery or resorting to cheap sentimentality. It’s poignant to watch the way total strangers come together regardless of cultural background or socioeconomic status, showing that in desperate times, the simplest acts of kindness go a long way.
With her gritty portrayal, Watts leads a strong cast that includes expressive performances by the child actors, especially newcomer Tom Holland as the resourceful oldest son.
The film, which is based on the story of a real-life family from Spain, does require a suspension of disbelief. For example, how did nobody know this storm was coming? And the climax feels embellished.
One problem with the script’s focus primarily on a wealthy British family is that it tends to ignore a larger context, namely the plight of the Thai natives whose homes were destroyed and whose lives were changed forever by the storm.
Yet overall, The Impossible is a story of resiliency and humanity that is somewhat overwrought but emotionally exhausting and ultimately powerful.
Rated PG-13, 114 minutes.