The Impossible takes dicey material—the story of one privileged family's suffering during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami—and transcends its political incorrectness by focusing on the human condition.
The knocks against The Impossible are entirely valid. The Spanish family on whose experiences the film is based (María Belón, Quique Álvarez, and their sons Lucas, Simon and Tomas) becomes an English family—Maria (Naomi Watts), Henry (Ewan McGregor), twelve-year-old Lucas (Tom Holland), seven-year-old Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and five-year-old Simon (Oaklee Pendergast): chalk that up to a financial necessity for international sales. More problematic is the focus on the pains of these upper-middle-class tourists to the exclusion of hundreds of thousands of South Asian locals, whose roles in the film amount to good-hearted rescuers of our heroes, at best, and set dressing at worst. There's no defending this approach other than to say The Impossible makes a distinct artistic choice subjectively to tell this one family's remarkable story of survival, insular as it is.
Most impressively, The Impossible provides one of the most visceral experiences of 2012 cinema. Working with a budget of $45 million and conspicuously limited use of CGI, director J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) achieves astonishing verisimilitude in recreating the tsunami and its immediate aftermath (by comparison, the tsunami-less Les Misérables cost $61 million). As a sheer feat of directorial ingenuity, The Impossible has no equal among the year's films.
The literally breathtaking tsunami sequence sweeps away the family and splits them into two groups, Maria with Lucas and Henry with the other boys. Physical injury and the complicated post-disaster environment compromise their efforts to survive, stay together and reunite, those efforts making up the bulk of the running time. The circumstances test the family's personal character and limits of physical and mental endurance, all of which implicitly ask viewers to consider their own capacities for survival and altruism.
Sergio G. Sánchez's efficient script presses hard on the thematic button of fate, and it would have been easy for The Impossible to come off as simply shameless in its tear-jerking. Perhaps it is, but Bayona shows a Spielbergian skill for putting the audience through an emotional wringer, in part by guiding his cast to resonant performances. Watts ably embodies maternal focus under extreme duress, and McGregor has a heartbreaking scene of emotional breakdown that suggests unplumbed depths to his talent. In a notable breakout turn, Tom Holland (who starred for a spell in the West End production of Billy Elliot) frequently and powerfully shoulders the film, as Lucas finds himself thrust into unimagined angst and responsibility, while Joslin and Pendergast prove guilelessly convincing in their (literally) smaller roles.
A real-life disaster shouldn't be the basis for a cinematic thrill ride, but The Impossible's tsunami puts a lump in one's throat to accompany white knuckles, as prelude to a story of keeping clear heads and clear hearts in the face of the unthinkable.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]