Like Zero Dark Thirty — though on a smaller scale — The Impossible has awakened controversy with its dramatization of recent history. In this case, the history is the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004. Many critics have noted with raised eyebrows that, out of the hundreds of thousands of people killed or affected by the disaster on multiple continents, director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez have chosen to focus on a few rich, lily-white tourists.
That’s true. Far from being a comprehensive portrait of the catastrophe, The Impossible is based on the factual account of a single Spanish family. On screen, moreover, they’ve become a gaggle of adorable British towheads: mom Naomi Watts, dad Ewan McGregor, 14-year-old son Lucas (Tom Holland) and two lookalike younger boys (Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast). The script is boilerplate, and the film’s early scenes, where the family flies into Thailand for their Christmas vacay, would be difficult to distinguish from a Lifetime movie if you didn’t know the caliber of the actors involved.
But then all hell breaks loose. The banality and blandness of the preceding scenes only serve to highlight the terror of a digital mega-wave barreling toward the resort — and the viewer. One minute, Watts’ Maria is pondering whether she should go back to work; the next, she is fighting for her life and her son’s, and facing the likelihood that she’ll never see the rest of her family again. As in a horror film, it doesn’t matter anymore who these people are — only how they react. And it’s not nature’s rage and destruction that seem “impossible,” but their collective survival.
Bayona’s acclaimed previous film, The Orphanage, was a sophisticated fright flick about a mother’s love for her son. The best parts of The Impossible are essentially the same thing. When the critically wounded Maria finds herself in a hospital with Lucas, separated from the rest of the family, she tells the doctors, “I’m all he has in the world!” An inferior actress would cheese up the moment, but Watts’ performance is raw enough to wring tears from the jaded. Holland is just as powerful as a boy who knows he may be orphaned in the next few hours but keeps busy by running around the hospital, trying to reunite other survivors.
Those scenes are among the film’s persistent reminders that, no, the tsunami did not just terrorize one family. Should the filmmakers have made a stronger effort to put native Thai victims on-screen? Yes. But we shouldn’t need reminding that every mass disaster leaves as many stories in its wake as there are survivors. This is merely one — with an improbable but true ending.