Starring flying debris and surging walls of water, The Impossible takes the template of the old-timey disaster movie, strips it to the bone and pumps what's left up to 11.
Decades ago, perched in front of Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, audiences were rewarded with thrills that depended on fleshed-out characters (Steve McQueen as a fire chief!) and multiple interconnected storylines. How pampered we were.
Because this based-on-true-life tale of a Spanish family trapped in Thailand by the 2004 tsunami is much worse than a disaster: It's an ordeal. As punishing to watch as it must have been to film — especially for Naomi Watts, who absorbs most of the abuse — this sledgehammer of a picture never lets up. From start to finish, Watts' pale, slender body is pummeled, gored, pierced and raked over what looks like acres of saw grass and jagged detritus. Like James Franco in 127 Hours (an ordeal movie if ever there was one), Watts isn't so much battling the elements as battling the frailties of her own flesh.
Cycling through the late-night talk shows, Watts and her co-star, Ewan McGregor, have been extolling a slavish devotion to accuracy on the part of the film's Spanish director, Juan Antonio Bayona, and his screenwriter, Sergio G. Sanchez. It bears mentioning, however, that this precision has a very narrow focus, encouraging us to care only about a single (white, wealthy) family among the hundreds of thousands of (mostly poor, mostly brown) locals killed and maimed. For all the energy and ingenuity lavished on the project — the first to revolve around this century's greatest natural tragedy — you'd think there would have been room to explore the wider suffering.
This microscopic approach may be economical, but it casts a pall of selfishness over events that might have read differently had the filmmakers exhibited a more universal compassion. (Those early disaster movies knew it was more humane, not just smarter filmmaking, to offer us a variety of victims.) So when businessman Henry Bennett (McGregor) dumps his two youngest sons with strangers while he hunts for his wife, Maria (Watts), and their oldest son, Lucas (a remarkable Tom Holland), he seems less the worried patriarch than a man accustomed to offloading inconveniences.
As it turns out, Henry is pretty much peripheral to the action anyway. From the moment the family, hours after arriving at a luxury beach resort, is separated by the mountainous tidal wave, he barely registers. Stuck on the fringes of the movie and squinting through a bad case of pinkeye, Henry and his quest are completely obliterated by the mother-son drama unfolding at its center.
And as Maria and Lucas make their slow, bloody way across a devastated landscape, her wide-open wounds are captured with almost sickening authenticity. Audience members have reportedly fainted during screenings, and it's not hard to see why; this isn't a film you want to experience after a heavy lunch.
Visually stunning but manipulative in the extreme — try not to roll your eyes as the various family members miss one another by inches — The Impossible nevertheless contains two of the year's best performances. Though presented as nothing more than a survival machine, Watts snags our sympathy through subtle shifts in expression and tone.
And young Holland (just 13 when he joined the production in 2009) is a marvel: When Lucas, after losing his mother in the chaos of a crowded hospital, finds her being prepped for emergency surgery, his angry relief is the film's most touching moment.
Unfortunately it's followed by one of the funniest. "Think of something nice," advises a nurse as she places an anesthesia mask over Maria's face. Like maybe a beach vacation?