What better day than the so-called Mayan Apocalypse for the opening of a film about a natural disaster that killed over 200,000 people and spread devastation to more than a dozen countries?
The disaster in question was the tsunami that swept through coastal regions of the Indian Ocean on the day after Christmas in 2004. “The Impossible,” from director Antonio Bayona and writer Sergio G. Sánchez, attempt to show us some measure of that devastation, but their focus is less on the scope of the disaster than the depth of primal terror that anyone faced by a natural disaster might experience.
Thus the film focuses on a single family (English in the film, Spanish in the true story the film is based on; an odd choice, given that Bayona himself is Spanish). We barely meet Henry and Maria (Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, respectively) and their brood of three boys before a tidal wave sweeps over the vacation resort in Thailand where they are staying.
What we learn of the family prior to the sudden devastation we mostly pick up in scenes set aboard the jet airliner that brings them to Thailand, and at the resort as the family settle in and celebrate Christmas. Henry is a jittery sort, always fretting over something (his job, whether he forgot to set the alarm before leaving home), while Maria is considerably calmer about life’s everyday worries, but far less sanguine when it comes to things like air travel. Eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) is just short of puberty, but already as moody as a teenager; he has little patience for his little brother’s fear of flying, and when his mother scolds him for it (only to then grimace when the plane hits some turbulence), he flashes a nasty little grin, musing, “I wonder who he takes after.”
There are a few deft scenes like this to sketch in the characters and the dynamics that operate between them. Once the tsunami hits, however, things get fast and frantic; Maria and Thomas are swept miles inland on a raging current, getting banged up all along the way; meantime, Henry and the two younger sons somehow manage to remain at the resort, now a ruin of mud and debris. The movie turns into a literal slog as the waters ebb and the characters set about seeking medical attention and searching for one another.
There are some affecting moments in “The Impossible,” as dazed survivors of various nationalities pass glancingly through one anothers’ lives; a lost little boy, a graceful elder woman, a German father, a selfish American who refuses to allow Henry the use of his cell phone. (The German proves to be far more generous.) But as the movie progresses, the question of where, exactly, the locals are and how they are faring becomes more and more glaring. When we see Thai people, they are calmly offering their assistance —— not mourning their own dead, searching in full-on panic for missing family members, or contemplating an extensive swath of destruction. All of that is left for the tourists. It would be laughable if it weren’t so embarrassing and such a classic example of first-world self-absorption.
There are also some painfully clichéd tropes at work. Maria, a doctor, is bubbling over with compassion for those around her, even as she’s bleeding from numerous gashes and spitting up ropes of clotted blood; Lucas learns a life lesson in putting the welfare of others before one’s own; Henry makes boneheaded choices such as leaving his two youngest children behind as he strikes out alone to try and locate his missing wife and elder son. After a while this movie wears you out —— not because of the physical and emotional demands of the story, but rather because of the shallow and predictable cinematic conventions to which it clings.
It should have been possible to make a decent disaster movie, or at least a memorable family drama, from this material, but “The Impossible” falls far short of the mark, feeling more like a technically superior Irwin Allen epic from the 1970s than either the two genres between which it falls, gets stuck, and pointlessly spins.