Juan Antonio Bayona is a dramatic horror director known for 2007’s The Orphanage. This fact made him the perfect choice to recreate the terrifying, real-life experiences of Spanish vacationer Maria Belon and her family, who were on holiday in Khao Lak, Thailand, when the South Asian tsunami struck on December 26, 2004.
This film tells the Belons’ story from the day of their arrival in Khao Lak through the tsunami and its immediate aftermath. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play Maria and Henry, parents of three young boys. In these roles, each gives an affecting, award-worthy performance. Also impressive is young Tom Holland, who plays Lucas, the eldest of the three boys. Much of the film rests upon his very capable tween shoulders, and he is solid as the heart of the film.
The Impossible has come under some criticism for portraying a European family in a sort of Hollywood exploitation of a tragedy that primarily affected Asians. However, it’s important to note that the film is a Spanish production, filmed in Spain and Thailand by a Spanish director, who chose to document the story of a Spanish family. The director and producers seem to have made the choice to film in English to allow their movie a wider audience than if it had been filmed in Spanish. (That said, there’s probably nothing wrong with urging English-speaking and / or European moviegoers to broaden their cinematic interests to include more subtitled films and films about non-European people.)
Even from the very beginning, subtle horror elements come through as sound is used to create an ominous tone. The most striking feature of this film is of course the portrayal of the initial wave itself, which we see from the point of view of those about to be struck by it. Following this is a harrowing sequence of underwater scenes from the point of view of mother Maria, as she is tossed by the surging waters and hit by debris, struggling to remain conscious and find the surface. According to Naomi Watts in a post-film Q&A in Los Angeles, it took an entire month of shooting in a water tank just to film this one scene. Its effect is overwhelming as it allows viewers to imagine in detail what this must have been like for those who experienced it.
Suffice it to say that this is not a film for the faint of heart. The film conveys Mother Nature’s grisly toll on the human body primarily through Maria’s dreadful wounds. In particular, one scene in the hospital reminds us that Bayona is a horror director, so audiences must be prepared for a bit of gore. Yet even the most grim scenes avoid feeling overdone. Instead, they are that much more chilling for their realism.
One might expect there to be little plot left after the initial blow of the tsunami, but this is hardly the case. As Maria finds herself alone with her eldest son in the muddy, debris-laden wasteland left by the water’s retreat, they find that there’s so much more to survival than just making it through the waves. To make matters worse, her husband and two younger sons are nowhere in sight. To say much more about the plot risks spoiling some of the film’s most interesting elements, and in fact, moviegoers might do well to see the film without viewing the trailer beforehand, as the trailer gives away some spoilers that the film itself doesn’t reveal until near its end.
Overall, the film documents a struggle of survivors that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. The scenes of interactions with other survivors along the way are inspiring, as in the frantic confusion, people try to help each other as best they can. Surprisingly, there are sparks of humor throughout. One scene in which a survivor lends another his phone will have audiences sobbing and chuckling at the same time.
Final Verdict: The Impossible is an extraordinary film, incredible in its visual achievements, its brilliant acting, its pacing, and its insertions of humor and hope within the catastrophe. It is a disaster narrative, equal parts horror and heart, but one that raises the genre to its highest level.