The Impossible, helmed by The Orphanage director J.A. Bayona, tells the mostly true story of one family’s traumatic experience during the devastating 2004 tsunami that devoured the western coast of Thailand.
The premise is deceptively simple. At the start of the film, we’re introduced to a vacationing family — father Henry (Ewan McGregor), mother Maria (Naomi Watts) and sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) — who arrive in Thailand for a tropical Christmas getaway. However, on the morning of December 26th, they are swept away into a mammoth tidal wave that sends them into the heart of disaster. Now separated, Henry, Maria and their boys must find their way to safety along with the tens of thousands of others caught in the middle of this deadly tragedy.
First and foremost, what really draws you in to The Impossibleis its dynamic sense of scope. While the tsunami is mostly just a backdrop for the narrative, Bayona commands a breathtaking spectacle that really feels authentic. The initial ten-minute sequence depicting the first enormous waves engulfing the coast took over one year to create, with 35,000 gallons of water brought in daily for the one-month shoot, but the results are stunning. If nothing else, the visual effects accomplished here — especially in the first 45 minutes — are nothing short of mind-boggling.
Of course, the heart and soul of this film are its characters. Although their screen time together is minimal, McGregor and Watts each deliver outstanding, moving performances. Frantically weaving through various states of genuine fear and feigned bravery for their kids, Henry and Maria are characters we can easily identify with. Watts is viewed as a potential Oscar nominee for this role, and while it is deserving, McGregor’s performance is equally powerful.
However, the surprise gem in this cast is the young Holland, who is making his impressive feature debut as Lucas. Shouldering responsibilities beyond his age and naturally developing courage throughout the film, it’s Lucas that really exemplifies the candid horror of this grievous situation, and Holland interprets that beautifully on screen.
As it happens, the only real downfall of The Impossible is its relentless sentimentality. Indeed, the harrowing journey of these characters is gripping and heart-rending, but the film occasionally teeters into the realm of emotional manipulation. Coincidence and schmaltz begin to take the reigns around the midpoint, rendering some of the film’s gravitas heavy-handed. Having said that, it’s hard to blame the film too much on this front, as it has to work within the confines of its near two-hour runtime.