The events that unfold in “The Impossible” fit the title so well that it's only believable because it's a true story, and a harrowing one at that.
Natural disasters are a frequent subject in movies but are rarely handled with this level of maturity — usually they're just relegated to big-budget summer action where the visuals are more the focus than the characters.
Director J.A. Bayona's “The Impossible” proves that true suspense is created through strong characters and good pacing, not massive special effects — even though the film has all of these elements.
Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as Maria and Henry Bennett, a normal couple on vacation in Thailand with their three children in late December 2004. There isn't a lot of exposition; just enough to establish them as caring parents with three generally well-behaved sons.
Then, while enjoying a peaceful morning at the resort swimming pool, the wave hits with little warning. It's a spectacular, terrifying sequence that leaves Maria clinging to a tree, gasping for air and scanning the roaring waters for any sign of her family.
The massive wave they encounter was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people in 14 countries. It appears like a beast from a horror film and starts a chain of events that, for the Bennetts, is equal parts survival and enlightenment.
The film, at times, is tonally similar to Danny Boyle's masterpiece “127 Hours.” Like that film, “The Impossible” deals with the ever-present threat of death, but is much more interested in watching as people fight, and choose, to live.
Other parts of the film are more interested in exploring how the experience shapes the Bennett children, specifically oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland). There are a couple of great scenes here as we watch the boy mature in a matter of minutes.
The two parts of “The Impossible” don't fit together perfectly, to be honest, but the film still captures a lot of raw humanity, pain and joy. It is helped by the great performances delivered by Watts, McGregor and newcomer Holland. They're tough, too — roles that are as physically demanding as they are emotionally draining.
I've come to expect greatness from Watts and McGregor. They prove, yet again, that my faith in them is completely warranted. Holland, however, is a revelation, projecting maturity far beyond his years and even stealing a couple scenes from Watts.
I applaud the gutsy directing choices Bayona makes. The film doesn't shy away from disturbing images — bloody wounds and dead bodies left in the tsunami's wake — but it's not so graphic I felt nauseated. Cinematographer Oscar Faura, who previously worked with Bayona on “The Orphanage,” captures the action in stunning colors and wonderfully long takes.
Although I felt at times that the film was trying to cover too much ground thematically — especially toward the end — I still found the experience moving and thought-provoking. It's heavy material, and I don't recommend it for anyone looking to get away from it all and have a good time. But it's a rewarding film for anyone ready to absorb a story about a ray of life in a sea of death.
“The Impossible” is rated PG-13 for intense, realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity.