The tsunami that hit Southeast Asia on December 26th 2004 was sudden and catastrophic, and surely no film will give us a closer approximation of that experience than The Impossible. The moment in which the wave surged inland with such ferocity is captured through an exceptional combination of CGI work and physical production design. Bodies are pulled helplessly by the current, along with cars, trees and a multitude of debris. When the waters finally subside, the wreckage of what was once a luxury seaside resort resembles a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with a few battered and bleeding survivors stumbling through it while bodies lay scattered on the ground around them. From this disaster, Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona has found a single story of hope and survival to focus on.
The Impossible is the true story of the Belon family, who were holidaying in Thailand for Christmas and who were separated when the tsunami hit. The family were Spanish, although they have been turned into an English family here, with Naomi Watts playing Maria Bennett and Ewan McGregor playing Henry. Such a move might feel a little disingenuous following the film's emphasis of the words "true story" in its opening text, but questions of funding and distribution probably made such a decision inevitable. The bigger issues lie with the way Bayona has told this story. The film grips in its early stages, until the inspiring nature of the story is submerged under a sea of sentiment.
The film's best section is the first half in which Bayona follows Maria and her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) as they find each other being dragged along by the stream and desperately looking for something to cling onto. Screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez doesn't waste much time on developing these characters (Maria's a doctor, Henry is worried about losing his job as...something in Japan) and the filmmakers rely heavily on the actors to flesh out their roles. Watts brings a fierce maternal instinct to her scenes with Holland, whose initially sulky turn grows in maturity as the film progresses, and this relationship is the backbone on which much of The Impossible rests. The film's effects are extraordinarily convincing and often disgusting (Bayona is a horror director at heart, and he knows how to make a viewer flinch), but it's the maternal bond created between Watts and Holland that proves to be the film's most vital special effect.
However, The Impossible is a film of two halves, and the second half of the picture is markedly less interesting. Ewan McGregor's performance as Henry is committed and emotionally raw, but watching him scour the ravaged landscape for his wife and eldest son (his two others boys having survived the tsunami with him) is less compelling as their reunion is a foregone conclusion. The Impossible may well be based on events that really happened to the Belon family, but their depiction onscreen doesn't feel real. Too much of the film consists of the various family members finding, losing and then finding each other, and these twists in the tale feel like little more than contrivances aimed at prolonging whatever sense of tension exists before the inevitably uplifting end. What makes it intolerable is the way Bayona works so hard to wring tears from the audience in this section; an overbearing approach that I found to be exhausting and distancing rather than moving.
The other thing that feels strangely distanced as The Impossible progresses is the sense of large-scale disaster. By focusing the film so intently on the experiences of one family who survived and escaped from the devastated region, the film fails to illuminate the many lives shattered beyond this single story. Of course, you may argue that this is not the filmmakers' intention, and other films – such as Polanski's The Pianist – have narrowed in on one tale against the backdrop of a vast tragedy, but The Impossible fails to get that difficult balance right and it too often neglects opportunities to widen its scope beyond the Bennett clan's increasingly repetitive experience (a late flashback to Maria's subjective view of the tsunami is a real misstep). There's something unsatisfying and troubling about watching them fly away together in a private jet while the inhabitants of the continent beneath them remain mired in such despair. The Impossible is one half an efficient survival thriller and one half an overcooked melodrama – what it is not, at any point, is a sufficient window onto this terrible event.