In “The Impossible,” an apocalyptic wave smashes into the coast of Thailand. Palm trees topple like bowling pins. Walls of water pull elephants through huge runways of unsparing mud. Resort huts built from straw and stucco are obliterated. And beneath the surface, sound is reduced to the muted gurgle of bubbles escaping lungs.
In 2004, the single worst tsunami in recorded history rose from the Indian Ocean to claim over 227,000 lives. “The Impossible” is based on the true story of one family’s effort to survive this unforgiving disaster. And several days after the screening, I still can’t wash away the film’s awful images of bodies bouncing down liquid obstacle courses teeming with swaying power-lines, propane tanks, and pick-up trucks. With fingernails squeezing armrests, viewers will cringe as a woman’s calf is gouged by underwater tree limbs… blood trails mixing with mud trails. Underwater bodies do somersaults, yanked and jerked by twisting currents, then snapped by oncoming walls of stopped-up rubble. Waterlogged survivors maneuver through fields of submerged tropical grass, like farm kids navigating a fluid-filled corn maze. Crabs crawl atop carcasses.
Riding amongst these merciless tides is a straight-forward survival story. British couple Maria and Henry Bennett (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) settle into a restful Thailand resort with their three young sons. They’re a handsome family, tucked snugly within paradise alongside the Indian Ocean. Releasing candle-lanterns into the humid night sky with other tourists, Maria and Henry trade admiring glances: “Life is great, and we’re in love.” This launching point is painted with such impossibly utopian strokes that we just know something god-awful is lurking right around the corner.
The following day, when flocks of birds pass frantically overhead and unexpected breeze blows a red beach-ball gently across the resort’s poolside, our protagonists sense sudden, impending doom. And when the wave does hit, its sound and fury is absolutely, unequivocally terrifying. It’s the most convincingly rendered feat of CGI mayhem I’ve ever endured.
There’s precious little characterization that precedes the Tsunami, but this hardly matters. Much of the film’s emotional power is visceral. When Watts rides the unrelenting waves clinging to a bed mattress, her pre-teen son Lucas (Tom Holland) floundering to grip the opposite end, the sense of dread and pending separation shared between mother and child becomes overwhelming.
As the waves subside, “The Impossible” takes a more melancholy turn. Miraculously, the entire Bennett family survives – alive, but hardly unscathed. After Maria is seriously injured and admitted to an overcrowded clinic, Lucas must take on the role of stoic protector. Determinedly assisting other hysterical victims in tracking down lost family members, while keeping watch of his own suffering mother, the eldest son comes of age in brave and selfless fashion. Miles away and unsure of whether or not Maria and Lucas are alive, Henry consoles the family’s other two children while struggling to track down its missing mother and son.
People who criticized “Flight” for placing its action set-piece before the prolonged personal drama might feel the same about “The Impossible.” As the film moves on, like a spent beach wave pulling back from the shore, it loses some momentum. As divided family members search for each other through make-shift hospitals and shelters, the images are undeniably moving – but also somewhat predictable. There’s the rich, arrogant tourist couple refusing to share their cell phone with McGregor, and later, the saintly comrade who hands over his own phone while the unnecessarily dramatic musical score accents his generosity. There’s also a prolonged stretch in which we’re left, somewhat cruelly, to assume that a key player is dead. The film doesn’t need contrived suspense. Its landscapes of loss and devastation are compelling enough on their own.
“The Impossible” boasts stellar performances that don’t get lost in the overwhelming sensory rush of its opening sequence. The criminally underrated Watts (subjected to a similarly ghastly ordeal in 2005’s more fantastical “King Kong”) convincingly conveys a woman subjected to physical and psychological hell on earth. And during a scene of emotional breakdown during a call to his extended family, McGregor breaks our heart. As Lucas, the film’s courageous anchor, Holland wins our respect as a young boy who – amidst trauma – finds his true calling as a caregiver to others.
“The Impossible” has some unfortunate flaws, including overwrought music and other needless manipulations designed to ratchet up the drama. Even so, I recommend the film for its unforgettable tsunami sequence (we’re a long way from the vibrating Sensurround seats that accompanied 1974’s “Earthquake”) and emotional intensity. There’s really no reason to over-analyze its primal premise – that of a cruel natural disaster wreaking unspeakable damage in its wake, and the survivors who inexplicably live to tell their stories. On this basic level, “The Impossible” works.