Remember the extended tsunami scene that occurred early on in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” (2010)? That seems a mere rivulet compared with the rushing waters coming at you, again and again, in “The Impossible,” a film that movingly chronicles one family’s fight for survival when caught in the horrific natural disaster that struck parts of Southeast Asia in 2004 and left nearly 300,000 dead.
“Impossible,” based on a true story, makes clear that surviving the onslaught of massive waves is only the beginning. Carried along in the rushing waters are cars, jagged metal debris, downed electrical wires and all manner of other deadly objects.
If you manage still to count yourself among the living after all that, you then have to contend with your own likely injuries and attempting to reunite with loved ones amidst a pervasive breakdown in communication systems, bureaucratic confusion and overwhelmed hospitals and medical personnel.
At the start of “Impossible,” we meet a British family of five -- Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three young sons -- as they fly to Thailand for a Christmas-time vacation at a high end beach resort. There are small tensions between the couple and between them and their eldest son, Lucas (Thomas Holland), who’s showing signs of impending adolescence, but fundamentally everyone loves each other and is having fun. (The real-life family upon which the film is based is Spanish.)
Then the waves hit. What follows for nearly 30 minutes is a terrifyingly vivid, you-are-there sequence, which focuses mostly on Maria as she gets swept along in the tsunami.
To give away more would ruin much of the film’s suspense. Suffice it to say simply that, as in such disasters, family members become separated, life-threatening injuries are sustained, and it’s not clear for some time who has survived and who may not have been as fortunate.
The movie effectively shows all of this, along with the enormous bravery and resourcefulness exhibited by the family’s individual members. It does so in a believable and even low-key fashion, never forgetting that this British family and so many of the other foreigners affected by the tsunami mostly are merely passing through–and have resources they can call upon that many locals can not–a nation that has been devastated.
It is Watts’ performance, much of it without dialogue, that’s the real standout here. She is a fierce center of maternal determination and devotion, a woman who understands the reality of what she’s facing–Maria is a doctor–but isn’t about to give up. McGregor and Holland also give strong and affecting performances.
As “Impossible” unfolds, it becomes clear that Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”) has succeeded in making an intense, almost intimate family drama in the guise of a disaster film. The movie leaves you in awe of both Mother Nature’s power and our own innate instinct for survival, and to reunite with those we love, in the face of it.