In the movies, nothing good ever follows from explicit portents of disaster. And so the immediate warnings issued by Sergio G. Sanchez’s mostly unfortunate script for The Impossible are a disappointment, themselves portents of a disaster film that lets few opportunities for cliché pass without giving them a try.
Start with the opening plane ride to a Thai beach resort, as Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) engage in a bit of verbal handwringing. Did they turn off the alarm before leaving? Oh well, nothing to be done about it now. One of their young sons worries too, about flying, as his older brother chides him. At the hotel, the parents grouse about their ground-floor room, having reserved a third-floor suite. After about 10 minutes of this, you’re expecting anything from a terrorist attack to alien invasion to come smash up this gorgeous tropical sojourn.
But the inevitability of the disaster is not just a narrative device in this surprisingly visceral film. Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) is also intent on showing just how little control the family has over their lives long before the waves come crashing into their hotel. They’re a British family living in Japan in a somewhat unmoored fashion. Henry does something undefined but lucrative enough that Maria doesn’t have to work (though she’s trained as a doctor). McGregor plays him as an uncertain type, nervous of his own shadow. When the film starts, he’s considering moving them back to England, but neither he nor Maria is sure what to think about it. They are unmoored from the world before the storm even comes.
In the remarkable set piece of that coming, the tsunami approaches slowly at first, knocking down palm trees in the distance as hotel guests watch with quizzical confusion. It’s only in the seconds before the waves rumble over the snow-white beach and vacation bungalows that the family understands what’s happening, and by then it’s too late to do anything but brace. The water hits like a wall, instantly redrawing the carefully sculpted Western vacationer paradise as a surrealist collage of floating cars and shards of buildings. The oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), finds himself in the raging torrent near Maria. As the two of them bounce agonizingly along the waves, screaming each other’s names, he shows an almost unbelievable control of himself, an aspect that will—of course—serve him and his mother well.
Following the storm, The Impossible turns into a reunification story. Lucas patiently waits by Maria in hospital, trying not to notice her graying skin and wheezing breath. In a development that would be hard to swallow were the script not based on the real story of a tourist family from Spain (where the film was a gigantic hit), Henry and their two younger boys, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) also survived.
The film flits between the two knots of survivors, contrasting the parents’ heartsick dread of the unknown with their children’s more pragmatic reasoning and straightforward terror. Despite the script’s hacky tendencies—as well as McGregor and Watts’ rote performances—the movie repeatedly comes up with devastatingly effective visuals. It underscores how awful it is not to know. At times, particularly in one nerve-rattling sequence where Maria is being flung this way and that by underwater currents, with shadowy objects stabbing out of the murk like vengeful ghosts, it becomes almost unbearable to watch.
An obvious criticism of The Impossible, and one that has certainly been made, is its focus on one well-to-do and white European family’s experiences in a disaster that killed over 150,000 people, mostly South Asians. It’s an unfair question, particularly given the film’s provenance, a Spanish filmmaker telling the story of what happened to his countrymen (who are transposed here as well), and also because the film never pretends to be a definitive story of the calamity. A less intelligent film would have created some token connection between the family and the native people around them. But except for a few brusque interactions in the hospital, and a superbly handled section where Maria is hauled to the hospital by villagers who have lost everything to the storm, they have almost no meaningful interactions with anyone around them. They are tourists, after all.