Put a staggering accomplishment called The Impossible, from Spanish director J. A. Bayona, at the top of the season’s must-see list. This intense nerve-shredder about a vacationing family separated in the violent and unexpected Indian Ocean tsunami that struck the southeast coast of Asia on Dec. 26, 2004, is the most wrenching disaster movie in decades. It’s also true, brilliantly acted by a gifted and dedicated cast and one of the best films about physical and emotional survival ever made. I first saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and I still haven’t recovered. The outline is deceptively simple: an everyday family (Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and their three children) flies to Thailand to spend Christmas vacation in a comfortable resort villa with an ocean view in Khao Lak. They check in, unpack, share a Christmas dinner, open presents and slip into their bathing suits to go snorkeling in water as colorful and adventurous as the guidebooks promised. Then, on the morning after Christmas, the electricity fails, followed by the odd sound of a distant rumble. It increases to a roar, but there’s no plane overhead. For dozens of vacationing Westerners relaxing by the pool, there’s no time to fully comprehend what’s happening before the tsunami is upon them, rising from the sea in a screaming wall of water as forceful as Niagara Falls. Filmed with 3D sound, the destruction of paradise by 98-foot-high waves (not recycled newsreel footage), which lasts 10 minutes, is terrifying, as children are knocked unconscious by flying automobiles and left to float away in the detritus of uprooted palm trees and falling power lines. But the aftermath is even more harrowing, as distraught parents search frantically for lost children and hysterical children wander through the rubble looking for missing parents. Mr. Bayona, the exciting young director who turned the stylishly creepy 2007 ghost story The Orphanage into one of the highest-grossing Spanish films of all time, makes the chaos and carnage of the tidal wave as visceral and overwhelming as anything in The Rains Came, Green Dolphin Street, The Hurricane or Earthquake. Rarely have I seen so much massive destruction staged so effectively. But after the bravura effects end, the human elements begin, and raw emotions take over as families pray for reunion among the overcrowded emergency rooms and unidentified corpses. Based on the actual experiences of tsunami survivors Maria and Henry Belon and their children, the nuanced screenplay by Sergio Sanchez gets everything right. Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, in two of the most rewarding roles of their careers, turn The Impossible into a life-affirming experience.
As the distressed British-born businessman father working for a firm in Japan, broken and bloody, clinging to two younger sons and praying that the rest of his family is still alive, Ewan McGregor has never been more appealing or more vulnerable. As his noble, heroic doctor wife instinctively trying to help others despite her own injuries, Naomi Watts gets a punishing workout. Climbing trees with two displaced children in her arms, swimming to safety through dead fish and rotting cadavers while her oldest son stays by her side on their agonizing journey through the ruins to a makeshift hospital, Ms. Watts seems almost spiritually committed to her role. The children are wonderful, especially a compelling young actor named Tom Holland, who makes an impressive debut as the brave, heartbreaking boy forced to shoulder responsibilities beyond his age and comprehension as he tries to save his mother’s life in the absence of a father. The entire cast achieves monumental heights of honesty and integrity in an unforgettable film that combines epic spectacle with the intimacy of loving relationships in a celebration of the invincible human spirit.
Running Time 107 minutes
Written by Sergio G. Sánchez
Directed by Juan Antonio Bayona
Starring Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland