The term "disaster movie" tends to conjure up images of campy and disposable entertainment involving killer asteroids and doomed ship voyages, so attaching it to a film like The Impossible feels wrong, considering the terrible true-life circumstances on which it's based. Those circumstances involve the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed an estimated 280,000 people in 14 different countries. Specifically, the film tells the story of the Belon family, British tourists who were separated from each other when the tsunami hit their beachside resort in Thailand on December 26th.
The bulk of the film features the parallel stories of Henry (played by Ewan McGregor) and his two sons struggling to reunite with his doctor wife, Maria (played by Naomi Watts), and the couple's oldest son, Lucas (played by impressive newcomer Tom Holland). The Impossible's focal point is obviously the tsunami event and the sequence is quite impressively executed by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona. Mostly eschewing special effects and relying on recreating the spectacle in the second largest water tank in the world, the ten minute sequence is gripping and immersive, realistically conveying the magnitude, violence, and unpredictability of mother nature. The aftermath of the big disaster (meaning the vast majority of the movie) inevitably feels somewhat anti-climatic, as the family makes the slow, arduous journey back to one another. Bayona briefly livens things up during one of these scenes with a gruesome close-up shot of a thigh wound suffered by Maria that elicited collective gasps and squirms from the theatre audience. According to this story, that shot apparently caused a couple of moviegoers at The Impossible's TIFF world premiere screening the day before to actually pass out. In either the same scene or one shortly before or shortly after it, the director also made what I thought was an odd decision in showing one of Maria's breasts being exposed to her son because one of the straps on her top had broken off. Considering the hell the tsunami had just put them through, the scenario was completely plausible and the real-life Maria was on set for most of the lengthy seven month shoot (ironically, bad weather slowed down production), so I can't even entertain the notion that the shot was exploitative. Even still, it just seemed like a very strange creative choice on Bayona's part.
Watts and McGregor give sound performances in roles I'd classify as unremarkable, especially McGregor's. Watts has a lot more heavy lifting to do, particularly during the numerous scenes where she's bedridden. Some early reviews of The Impossible wildly speculated on Oscar nominations for their performances, which would devalue that whole spectacle even more in my eyes than it already is. Holland gets more screen time than either star and acquits himself very well. The Impossible's frequent reliance on the youngster's point of view, coupled with the spectacle of the tsunami, also lends the film an unmistakable Spielbergian quality (you can also find it in the occasionally overly manipulative musical score).
I found myself intermittently more emotionally invested with the characters than I would have expected, but The Impossible ends up feeling like little more than average entertainment with one dynamic ten minute segment.
Opens in Spain next week and select European and Asian markets through February 2013; opens in North America in late December