Disaster movies have become such a Hollywood staple that it seems we can’t go a year without the Statue of Liberty getting walloped by an asteroid, or an alien death ray, or any number of giant creatures of indeterminate origin.
The vast majority of these cataclysms come from the minds of screenwriters; therefore movies based on actual natural disasters are much rarer. There are many reasons for this, but most of them have to do with good taste because escapist entertainment featuring an event that touched millions of lives can seem exploitative at best.
Accepting the challenge of tastefully dramatizing a real disaster is “The Impossible,” one family’s heart-wrenching, harrowing, breathtaking, and, most astoundingly, true story of survival during the 2004 tsunami that struck the Indian Ocean.
Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play married couple Maria and Henry, who is on vacation in Thailand with their three sons, teenaged Lucas (Tom Holland) and his two younger brothers Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin).
Nothing is out of the ordinary as the family plays in the pool at a seaside resort. Then with virtually no warning, a massive, inescapable wave crashes onto shore.
In an incredible sequence so realistic and massive in scope that you can only marvel at how it was accomplished short of creating another tsunami, we ride along with Maria and Lucas as they are swept away by the wave.
Dodging debris and struggling to stay afloat, mother and son eventually find each other and safety. But as the water recedes, another kind of chaos begins as the survivors attempt to find their way amid total devastation.
Maria sustains life-threatening injuries in the ordeal and Lucas is eventually able to get her to a hospital that has been inundated by the wounded.
The weight of the world, and the film, then falls on Lucas as he struggles to find adequate care for his mother while holding on to only the tiniest slivers of hope of ever seeing his father and brothers alive again.
“The Impossible” is a powerful film that manages to find a fresh take on well-worn cinematic tropes like “the awesome power of nature” and “the triumph of the human spirit.”
Helmed by Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona, who brought along most of the creative team behind his atmospheric horror movie “The Orphanage,” this is a movie that pulls few punches.
You could accuse “The Impossible” of being emotionally manipulative, which is a claim leveled at any tearjerker worth its salt, but the legitimacy of both the tsunami and this family’s story far outweigh any dramatic license the filmmakers may have taken.
The acting performances are also worthy of the heft of this story. McGregor is terrific as always and Holland shows poise beyond his years and effortlessly takes the movie on his back during the middle of the film.
But it is Watts who shines the brightest. Her performance as Maria is one of the best of the year. She has already earned a Golden Globe nomination and her second Oscar nomination is likely to follow.
Any time you can combine powerhouse performances with “how’d-they-do-that” special effects and an amazing true story then you’ve got yourself one heck of a movie. “The Impossible” is just that.
“The Impossible” is rated PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity.