Making a film about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis offers several challenges. Epic with ensemble cast, or verité feel with narrow focus? Computer-generated tidal wall or ingenious blend of cinematic effects and actual footage? Triumphant or tragic ending? The actual disaster that befalls the coastal resort in The Impossible comes early in the narrative and is likely to cause some audience members to involuntarily shield their eyes. The tsunami is depicted with extreme realism — the 10-minute scene took a year to create — but once the horrors that the survivors went through subsides, the how’d they do that? wonder remains.
Naomi Watts portrays a character based on Maria Belon, whose real-life story informed Sergio G. Sanchez’s screenplay. One picture-perfect sunny morning, the film’s Maria and her husband, Henry (Ewan McGregor), are within sight of each other and their three sons in the resort’s pool area. A strange sound from the ocean draws all attention, but a building blocks the tourists’ view. Trees snapping like twigs are seen first, before the water crashes over the building and engulfs everything.
Maria makes it through, though, as does son Lucas (Tom Holland), but with horrifying injuries. Once the water recedes, Maria and Lucas are among the few walking wounded, with Henry and the other two boys nowhere to be found. They have to find medical treatment for Maria, and decide to help others or help themselves, providing Lucas with a test of courage and character. Helping others becomes a wider survivors’ theme, with director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) skirting clichés and translating Belon’s story into a compelling narrative arc with nary a special-effects seam showing.