||A natural disaster provides the basis for an inspiring tale of familial strength under pressure and perseverance against all odds in J.A. Bayona’s “The Impossible.” Set against the backdrop of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, which brought widespread destruction to coastal regions of Thailand, it’s the fact-based story of the determined effort of one vacationing western couple and their three young sons to survive and find one another again in the face of unbelievable catastrophe.
The actual people on whose experience the script is based were Spanish, but here they’re British—the Bennetts, businessman Henry (Ewan McGregor) and doctor Maria (Naomi Watts), who arrive at a Thai seaside resort to celebrate Christmas with their sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). After a first reel that shows them frolicking in what seems to be a tropical paradise, the tsunami hits—in a lengthy sequence so remarkably realistic that its combination of live-action and seamless CGI effects that it puts “The Hobbit” to shame. The impact is shown largely from Maria’s point of view, and Watts must have endured considerable hardship since she appears repeatedly being buffeted about by waves—something that couldn’t have been accomplished solely by stuntwomen and visual wizardry.
But though she’s certainly impressive throughout and McGregor, while he doesn’t get quite the same opportunity that she does, playing the more passive role, is also fine, the two top-billed adults really play second fiddle to young Holland, in his first live-action screen role, as the eldest of their sons. Lucas is really the glue who holds the tale together, since the script is really constructed as the story of his maturation from a rather self-absorbed adolescent to a heroic young man, who not only helps save his mother but assists others after they reach an understaffed, overcrowded hospital and is instrumental in reuniting Maria and himself with Henry, who’s been searching for them with Thomas and Simon in tow. And Holland plays the lad with just the right mixture of grit and vulnerability, giving the boy a sense of inner strength than never degenerates into mere posing. It’s always difficult to predict what sort of career a child actor might have ahead of him, but Holland’s turn here is a substantial as Christian Bale’s in “Empire of the Sun.”
That film isn’t, in fact, a bad comparison to “The Impossible,” since both are in fact highly manipulative crowd-pleasers set in dire circumstances, and Bayona (seconded by composer Fernando Velasquez), like Spielberg at his best, can play on an audience’s emotional responses with great skill. But that’s no reason to dismiss his picture, because it works. To be sure, there’s calculation in the decision to juxtapose the Maria and Lucas plot thread with that of Henry and the other boys, and the moments when Lucas and Henry just miss encountering one another threaten to pass into the territory of the absurd. But the bipartite structure also allows for some powerful moments—the help mother and son receive from locals, who make certain that they receive medical attention even as they’re suffering themselves, or the scene in which a fellow victim allows Henry to use his cell phone to call home, even if the battery service is limited. And though a subplot in which Maria and Lucas save an angelic little boy and bring him along to safety pays off at the hospital, when it serves to emphasize the bond between parents and children that’s the linchpin of the story.
The technical accomplishment of “The Impossible” is extraordinary, and the special and visual effects team, as well as the stunt persons and their coordinators, deserve the highest accolades for pulling it all off—as also do cinematographer Oscar Faura and editors Elena Ruiz and Bernat Vilapana for their skill in composition and pacing. But in the end it’s the characters who will stand out in your memory, for which Holland, Watts, McGregor, Joslin and Pendergast (as well as Bayona, who draws out their best) are responsible. The tidal surge the crew was able to create has great impact, but without the dramatic impact the actors generate it would have meant little.
It’s true that the last act of the movie may fudge the historical record for dramatic effect. But as with “Argo,” you’re willing to accept that in view of the result being so emotionally satisfying. It’s practically impossible to resist the pull of this film.