Does The Impossible count as disaster porn, as some observers have suggested? The film, based on the true story of an upper-class Spanish family's efforts to survive the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that struck South Asia, killing 8,000 people in Thailand (and 250,000 in the region), indeed feels a bit voyeuristic at times. Viewers are asked to thrill to the chills of a horrifying onrush of water, headed straight for a luxurious tropical resort, knocking over palm trees and dwellings as if they were matchsticks. It's an absolutely frightening moment, stunningly assembled by Juan Antonio Bayona, the Spanish-born director of underrated horror chiller The Orphanage. Onlookers notice a distant rumbling sound, and birds suddenly fly away. Then comes a disturbing silence and a brief sound of rushing wind, and the massive wave strikes hard. Hurts so good?
Potentially troubling, too, is the question of focus, as the story centers on the struggles endured by wealthy British couple Maria Bennett (Naomi Watts), her husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three sons, who had been enjoying an extended Christmas holiday in Khao Lak. Left untold are the stories of those Thailanders, many quite poor, left behind to search for missing family members, tend to their injured, bury their dead, and find somewhere to live after their homes were suddenly destroyed.
Does that oversight amount to exploitation? Not necessarily. For starters, as mentioned, the inspiring tale actually happened; it's not strictly a made-for-Hollywood product, endowed with its own agenda. And, just as importantly, Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez, rather than simply asking filmgoers to marvel at the horrible carnage of it all, emphasize the strength of familial bonds, the sheer determination of Maria, Henry, and 11-year-old son Lucas (Tom Holland) to leverage all of their physical, mental and emotional resources in order to reunite with their loved ones. By dint of sheer will, they are bent on achieving what looks like a miraculous feat, a task that seems all but impossible. Yes, it's triumph-of-the-human-spirit time — sounds corny, but rings true here.
The Bennetts' prospects of coming home alive at first look quite dim, to say the least. Following the initial impact of the tsunami, Maria wakes up in churning water, and, after screaming for Lucas, locates him within shouting distance. Bayona and cinematographer Oscar Faura effectively place us inside the swirling confusion, as mother and son cling to one another, and manage to stay together despite the deadly obstacles in their path. Eventually, roles are reversed, and Lucas takes the lead, becoming his mother's champion, striving to ensure the survival of a wounded woman so bedraggled and discolored that she appears to be knocking at death's door.
Meanwhile, Henry and the family's two youngest sons, Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin), are in another location, furiously searching for their counterparts. A large part of the film is set at a makeshift hospital, teeming with the wounded. There, Maria may or may not get the help she needs. Near-misses and mistaken identities — was that dad, or merely someone with a striking resemblance to him? — drive the tension during the latter moments of the story.
It's to young Holland's credit that the film holds together as well as it does. While the script doesn't dig deep into how and why Lucas is able to do what he does, the actor is an appealing, sympathetic performer whose transformation from whiny kid to invaluable protector is believable. At the same time, it's surprising that an actor as capable as McGregor isn't given more to do; Henry's story is truncated. The Impossible, while exhilarating and admirably inspiring, ultimately feels incomplete.