This is the a story of remarkable survival following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami by a Spanish family of five. And the story credit does indeed go to the mother, Maria Belon.
Let’s get one issue out of the way up front. This is a Spanish film, directed by J.A. Bayona and written by Sergio G. Sanchez, the team behind the 2007 horror film, “The Orphanage,” Spain’s highest grossing film ever and one of the most success Spanish-language films internationally.
But this film is in English and the Spanish family has been changed to a British one so such international stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor can top line. No big deal as far as I’m concerned.
Spanish filmmakers have every right to reach as large an audience as they can through well-known stars and the lingua franca of world cinema, which is English. (For that matter, the film will get dubbed into local languages in most non-English territories anyway so, again, this is no big deal.)
Consider too what excellent actors these are. Watts gets the physical ordeal just right, the initial panic and bravery despite an awful injury and near death because of that injury. But she also finds the emotions to draw an audience into Maria’s story without histrionics.
The same goes for McGregor who must deal with grief — he can only assume some family members are dead as the wave scattered everyone — while tending to two small sons and searching for his wife and older son.
Because the tricky thing about this particular story, of which everyone involved is clearly aware, is that while this may be a story of survival, it takes place within a global catastrophe where nearly 300,000 people did lose their lives.
So the film and its actors must — and do — recreate the horror and heroism of this unique story while acknowledging that these protagonists are among the lucky few. The horror surrounding the movie’s events is emotionally credible and the actors’ range of reactions all too real.
The family — Maria (Watts) and Henry (McGregor) and their three boys, the eldest, Lucas (Tom Holland); Thomas (Simon Joslin); and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), the youngest — fly to the Thai resort island of Phuket for a Christmas holiday in 2004.
On December 26, they are in and around the hotel swimming pool when a huge dark wave sweeps over the entire ocean front, demolishing every tree, building, vehicle and object in its way and submerging under water and scattering every person for what looks like a half mile inland.
To give you a sense of the enormity of the catastrophe, the camera takes you everywhere — at ground level, high in the sky and underwater — a Godlike view as it were.
This 10-minute sequence makes for a shattering experience, far worse than bloody horror-film tropes since you know from footage of the 2007 event and then from Japanese tsunami last year that this is exactly what does happen.
Bayona and Sanchez make the intelligent decision to narrow the focus initially down to Maria and Lucas. As the most mature boy, he sees the situation with as much clarity as one can under the circumstances: The odds against any other family survivors are long and he and his mom must get to safety as swiftly as possible.
Then he discovers how badly his mother is hurt. Operating on adrenaline and worry, she is unaware and insists on a rescue of a small boy that Lucas believes may impede their own survival.
But they do achieve the rescue and, being a doctor, the ever-weakening Maria is able to fashion a makeshift tourniquet. Now his mother’s protector, Lucas does get her a hospital through the selfless help of locals who carry her on a stretcher made from a random door.
The bond between these two becomes stronger by the moment, but while Lucas is off assisting the reunification of another family in the hospital his mom literally disappears. The harried staff can’t tell him what happened. He has every reason to fear the worst.
Then the focus shifts. Miraculously, Henry finds his younger boys swiftly enough but his wife and eldest son have disappeared.
He will eventually make the difficult and, no doubt to many audience members, wrong-headed decision to leave his small sons to look after each other as he continues his search for the others in the dark of night.
At every point, you become aware of how fateful each decision is and how the never-ending nightmare wears people down mentally more than physically.
Whether the near comedy of missed connections really took place doesn’t matter, but the final third of the movie feels a little forced and composer Óscar Faura may overwork his string section more than necessary.
The emotional power of the film comes earlier in the catastrophe, the immediate aftermath and random acts of heroism by people including Maria. While too strong perhaps for younger people, “The Impossible” is in many respects the perfect family movie.
Politicians and pundits talk themselves blue in the face about family values to the point the phrase has almost lost its meaning. In “The Impossible” you get a vivid sense of what it really means.
Opens: December 21, 2012 in L.A. and N.Y. (Summit Entertainment)
Production: Summit Entertainment and Mediaset España present an Apaches Entertainment Telecinco Cinema production
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast, Marta Etura, Sonke Mohring, Geraldine Chaplin
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Screenwriter: Sergio G. Sanchez
Story by: Maria Belon
Producers: Belén Atienza, Álvaro Augustin, Enrique Lopez-Lavigne, Ghislain Barrois
Executive producers: Sandra Hermida, Javier Ugarte Director of photography: Oscar Faura
Production designer: Eugenio Caballero
Music: Óscar Faura
Costume designers: Anna Bingermann, Sparka Lee Hall, Maria Reyes
Editors: Bernat Vilaplana, Elena Ruiz
PG-13 rating, 114 minutes