THE IMPOSSIBLE (PG-13) It's December 2004, and a British family living abroad in Japan travels to an idyllic Thai beach resort for their Christmas holiday. The natural beauty of the area is paradise on Earth, but on the day after Christmas a massive tsunami hits the coastline. Over 230,000 people are killed in Thailand, India, Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries. Millions of others are displaced from their homes. At the pool when the first wave hits, the family is separated in the aftermath and they struggle to reunite. Based on a true story of a Spanish family.
The idea of Hollywood making a movie about the South Asian earthquake and tsunami initially sounds obscene, particularly a feature utilizing the latest sophisticated special-effects technology to reimagine all that real death and suffering as pleasingly synthetic eye candy. The Impossible may have big movie stars in the cast—Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor—and use lavish effects for the tsunami sequences, but director J.A. Bayona (who made the excellent ghost story The Orphanage a few years back) is not from Hollywood. That doesn't mean that Bayona isn't guilty of indulging in Hollywood-type emotional manipulations and cheap sentimentality.
For the most part, however, especially in the first half, The Impossible is riveting. It's also hellish and viscerally overwhelming at times, anchored by two extraordinary performances from Watts and young Tom Holland, who plays her eldest son. After the first wave hits, mother and son are helpless in the strong current as the water rages back out to sea. Battered, bloody and barely holding on, the two scramble to save each other. The sequence is technically virtuosic and emotionally devastating. Watts' character, Maria, is suffering from two deep wounds, and Bayona effectively conveys her emotional and physical hardships. Where the movie falters is in the second half, relying too much on forced dramatic suspense and tidy reassurance. We crave for the family to be reunited, but also for genuine poignancy instead of schmaltz. Bayona later jolts us with a flashback sequence of Maria submerged in the water that feels bizarrely tone deaf and indulges in expressing the horrific devastation as exquisite carnage, something that can't be said about the earlier sequence. The scene is a disappointing moment of disaster fetishism in an otherwise terrifying humanistic drama. It's a hard, intense movie to shake off.