The most harrowing disaster movie in many a moon, “The Impossible” marries a tremendous feat of physical filmmaking to an emotional true story of family survival. Cannily fusing spectacle and uplift in a distinctly Spielbergian manner, talented Spanish helmer J. A. Bayona captures the devastation wrought by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami with a raw, sickening intensity, demonstrating a surefooted but rather less elemental touch in the calculated-to-resonate aftermath. Wrenchingly acted, deftly manipulated and terrifyingly well made, this not-for-the-squeamish Summit release stands to be a significant year-end draw.
The title refers to the extraordinary circumstances by which the Belon family, vacationing in Thailand in December 2004, managed to weather the deadliest catastrophe in the country’s history. Sergio G. Sanchez’s screenplay (with a story credited to surviving wife and mother Maria Belon) dramatizes the events with a lean, pared-down simplicity. Not a frame is wasted, as British-born businessman Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor) and his doctor wife, Maria (Naomi Watts), arrive at a Thai beach resort with their three boys on Christmas Eve, arguing, laughing and playing like any loving family right when disaster strikes.
In a staggeringly vivid 10-minute reconstruction, 98-foot-high tidal waves sweep through Thailand’s coastal towns, flinging people, cars and debris around like dolls. Almost immediately, the enormous walls of water separate Maria and oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) from Henry and the two younger boys, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast).
Longer and more concentrated in impact than the tsunami prologue of Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” this gale-force sequence was achieved using Thailand-based sets, a Spain-based liquid tank, several thousand gallons of water, and seamlessly integrated f/x. While the scenes of sweeping, large-scale destruction are stunning to behold, the most nightmarish sights and sounds come via Maria’s perspective as she’s repeatedly dragged beneath the surface; few films have so palpably evoked the sensation of drowning, or of being pounded relentlessly by muddy waves and debris.
Steadying themselves by clinging to a felled tree, Lucas and a badly injured Maria eventually find their way to dry land. Detailing every groan, scrape and shudder with almost unbearable deliberation, the film documents their agonizingly slow journey to a crowded hospital; meanwhile, Henry searches for them amid the wreckage of the resort, unsure of how best to take care of Thomas and Simon in the meantime.
Collaborating again after their impressive 2007 debut feature, “The Orphanage,” Bayona and Sanchez get many things right here, starting with their decision to eschew a more panoramic view of the disaster to follow one family’s journey from start to finish. The stripped-down approach suits an intimate story of individuals pushed to their limits — to a place where survival and reunion become their sole priorities. TV news footage is kept to a refreshing minimum; any context about the scope of the tragedy is gleaned primarily from the Bennetts’ sympathetic conversations with their fellow refugees. Lessons about the nobility of sacrifice and the satisfaction of helping others in times of crisis emerge stirringly and organically from the characters’ experiences, along with spontaneous moments of life-affirming humor.
Watts has few equals at conveying physical and emotional extremis, something she again demonstrates in a mostly bedridden role, and McGregor, in one of his better recent performances, manages to turn a simple phone call home into a small aria of heartbreak. Holland, in his live-action bigscreen debut, is wonderful as a kind, somewhat short-tempered kid who still has plenty to learn, setting the tone for similarly heartrending turns by young Joslin and Pendergast.
In many respects, particularly the way it gives children an enormous role to play on a canvas of epic calamity, this is prototypical Spielberg fare, and as such it’s not immune to a certain emotional manipulation. As the virtually unrelieved tension and anxiety of the first half give way to less grueling scenes of will-they-find-each-other suspense, signaled by increasingly operatic surges in Fernando Velazquez’s score, “The Impossible” contrives a conclusion that, however true to life it may be, can’t help but feel somewhat artificially imposed in relation to what has preceded it.
Through it all, Bayona’s handling of the overarching logistics — marshaling hundreds of extras (many of them real-life tsunami survivors) in scenes of such overwhelming verisimilitude that you can practically smell the blood, sweat and squalor — is nothing short of masterly. In a tech package without a weak link, from the unerring camera placement to the forceful editing, the most notable element may be the exceptionally detailed soundscape, which announces itself with a near-deafening drone early on and proves invaluable in pounding home the film’s visceral impact.