The Impossible is promoted as a true story of one family’s harrowing experience during the Indian Ocean tsunami that occurred on Boxing Day almost exactly eight years ago. Indeed, the film carries out the moment of the wave’s impact with amazing shock and horror. Before the disaster strikes, Spanish director J. A. Bayona (The Orphanage) creates a picture of such a loving family in a perfect vacation setting that it’s hard to believe a force of nature is approaching to rip it all apart.
British couple Maria and Henry Bennett (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) and their three boys have traveled to Thailand from their current home in Japan for a Christmas vacation in a beautiful beachside report. They spend Christmas Day morning opening presents and then enjoying the sun, and the family is poolside when the tsunami suddenly hits, washing them all away.
After the tsunami hits, we follow Maria and her eldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland), as they navigate the rushing waters. The severe injuries Maria sustains makes Lucas her de facto caretaker as they find their way to safety. Simultaneously, Henry is stranded with his two youngest boys, torn between bringing them to safety or continuing to search for his missing wife and Lucas.
As wonderful as both McGregor and, especially, Watts are as the desperate parents, the true star is Holland. His commanding performance as a young adolescent boy who must take on incredible responsibilities is the most moving part of a film built on emotionally poignant moments. Lucas is also the crux of the family, the intermediary between his adult parents and younger brothers. As a kid and now his mother’s guardian, Lucas represents both sides of the experience, and Holland carries a tough and demanding role impressively well.
Bayona also does an amazing job of balancing one family’s story with the wider impact of the tsunami in the region. (The actual family was, in fact, Spanish.) As various members of the family attempt to survive and search for one another, the devastation this has caused for both locals and vacationers is apparent. This is most clearly depicted in a scene in which Lucas attempts to help patients in a crowded hospital reconnect with their missing family members. The images of blood, dirt, and desperate people are never far from the background of the Bennetts’ search, even up to the final scene.
It’s in some ways a traditional disaster movie, but through fantastic performances, an affective script by Sergio G. Sánchez, and the beautifully arresting cinematography by Óscar Faura, the film transcends the genre. By not focusing on the convention of one man’s journey to save the day, The Impossible makes heroes out of every member of the Bennett family. This story of perseverance can be seen as simple, and one that has been dramatized many times in various scenarios. Nevertheless, it’s simultaneously terrifying and incredibly heart wrenching. By shining a light on the various struggles of one family, the film makes the tragedy that much more real.