The Impossible, Juan Antonio Bayona's new tsunami flick, begins with a title card informing us that what we are about to witness is a true story of a family's experience during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Thailand. Everything but "true story" then fades away, and the words linger there — "true story... true story..." — as if to hypnotize us and inoculate the film against any claims of sensationalism. There is then a rumble, a churning sound, something growing louder and louder. Is it the tsunami coming, an early aural glimpse of the movie's grim and terrifying set piece? Well, no, as it turns out; it's an airplane engine, which Bayona reveals to us with a jolt. It's a strange fake-out in a movie like this — we know what we're here to watch, and, given the subject matter, there's no need to thrill us or trick us with whiz-bang flourishes. Same goes for the make-you-jump turbulence we experience once inside the airplane, where we first meet our noble family. Parents Maria (Naomi Watts) and Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three sons (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, and Oaklee Pendergast) are traveling from Japan, where they live because of Henry's job, to a tony resort in Thailand, where they will spend Christmas. Maria is afraid of flying, their older son Lucas (the remarkable Billy Elliot vet Holland) is petulantly ignoring his brothers, and Henry keeps wondering if he remembered to set the alarm back at the house. (This scene is so familiar that I half expected Watts to sit up with a fright and yell "Kevin!!") It's all meant to be rambling and naturalistic, but it quickly struck me as oddly contrived and generic instead. This is a real family we're talking about, so where is the idiosyncrasy, the specificity?
The scenes leading up to the big wave are charming enough — the three English lads opening presents on Christmas morning, Watts and McGregor smiling prettily at each other over a pleasant Christmas Eve dinner — but we learn very little about who these people are. They are simply totems of doomed, ignorant touristic bliss, wealthy and comfortable enough to be among the most unsuspecting of the catastrophe's victims. There is also something unsettling in the casting of Watts and McGregor, and the three boys by extension. The original family is Spanish, and this is a Spanish production directed by a Spanish director. And yet we've got these two pale, cup-of-tea folks as our leads. I'm glumly convinced that marketing concerns played a factor here, but by altering these real-life people like this — not only making them proper and fair-haired and English, but also removing any messy particulars from the characters — it's hard to have anything to grab on to once disaster strikes. Sure, it's sad and scary in a general way, a family in peril bravely trying to survive in a brutal situation. But why then linger so bluntly on the "true story" if one large identifier has been changed and everything else muted down to what amount to rough outlines? I feel like we would be even more transported and horrified by what happens next if, during this gauzy but tension-freighted pre-nightmare stretch, we got to know the people — the real people — we were about to watch get tossed around. As it is, though, we're just seeing pretty, golden nonentities thrashing toward salvation. It's moving enough, but it could have been heart-stopping.
Still, the initial tsunami scenes are a triumph of chaos and panic. As happened in the real deal, we've little time to prepare. The wall of brown, debris-filled water is soon upon our heroes and the camera stays with Watts and she's tossed end over end and comes up gasping for air, gripping a palm tree, alone in a racing tide of water. It's here that Watts truly begins her deeply committed performance; Maria is about to suffer, a lot. At first screaming out of sheer animal terror, Maria eventually hones her vocal energy upon seeing her oldest son Lucas flailing in the water. What ensues is the film's strongest — and scariest — sequence, in which mother and son try to reach each other, find something to hold onto, and avoid any dangerous debris. They succeed at two out of the three. Meaning, Maria is pretty badly hurt, her chest punctured and leg torn up in gruesome fashion. After clinging desperately to debris for a while, mother and son find safety on dry-enough land, though Maria's condition is worsening by the minute. Eventually they receive help, and Maria is taken to a hospital, weak and sick with infection, neither she nor Lucas quite ready to fully comprehend what they know must be true: that Henry and the other two boys are gone. Maria's dreadful condition serves as something of a distraction, and thus we begin the third and final phase of the movie, the recovery and reunion.
It's here where Sergio G. Sánchez's weak screenplay truly begins to break down, as we're forced to endure weary cliché after weary cliché, followed by a series of near misses that's awfully stage-y for a film trying so hard to be real and affecting. Lucas is dispatched by his bed-ridden mother to help in any way he can, and we follow the boy as he explores the sprawling, jam-packed hospital and begins trying to reconnect scared and confused survivors with their family members. Meanwhile! Oh, meanwhile, dear reader, Henry is alive and well and so are the two little ones -- they've barely got a scratch on them. Henry is convinced that he will find Maria and Lucas — so convinced, in fact, that he lets his two sons, who couldn't be more than three and six years old, get carted off to "the mountains" while he stays to look for the rest of his family. Who knows if this is what happened in real life, but it's a decision that frustrated even this non-parent. Maybe he thought there might be another wave? Whatever the reasoning, watching him send his kids off with strangers to destination unknown in a tsunami-ravaged developing country is exhaustingly aggravating, even if that is what happened in real life. They changed the names and nationality already, couldn't they change this part, too? Must we have more unnecessary hardship?
Throughout all this, Bayona films with crisp if flat efficiency, going for digital veracity with a dash of dreaminess. He's helped none, though, by Sánchez's increasingly hokey script and Fernando Velázquez's too-loud score. The music is a really big problem here; indicating and intrusive, the alternately screaming and keening strings do nothing for a story that is mostly aiming for frantic realism. Bayona and company seem to be confused about what kind of movie they're trying to make. Is this a swirling, artsy, albeit real-life fable of survival, or is it a sober look at a historic catastrophe? In practice it's sort of both and sort of neither. It's sweet to watch Lucas do well by his mom and others. It's bracing to watch Naomi Watts waste away under a pile of hideously realistic makeup. And I guess it's sad to see Ewan McGregor break down in howling sobs when he makes a phone call home to say that he can't find his wife and son. But what is the point of any of it, really?
The point is that in the end (and spoiler alert if you're not familiar with the real story) everyone's OK. It looks touch-and-go for Maria, but she eventually pulls through — only after we've seen her burst like a watery phoenix out of the wave once more. Henry eventually finds his boys, all three of his boys, at the hospital. The reunion between the sons is undeniably tear-inducing — something about siblings hugging each other instead of kicking shins? — and Watts whispers and near-weeps touchingly when the boys are brought to her bedside. Then everyone gets on a plane and flies away, leaving this ravaged land behind and heading to the best hospital in Singapore. Music crescendos, Lucas and Maria hug, Watts cries, movie ends. Oh. OK. And about those 250,000 people dead on the ground beneath this planeload of rescued blond folks? They're barely glimpsed, only ever hinted at briefly. Ah, well. They got that HBO movie a few years ago, right?
Bayona has made an excellent, truly fearsome scene of a mother and her son surviving a tsunami, and then stuffed it in between an insisting mini-thriller of doom and a goopy uplifting drama that features the anonymous kindness of ethnic strangers and, in one groaner of a scene, Geraldine Chaplin whispering about the mystery of the stars. (Yes.) I'm not saying that Bayona should have spent his two hours shooting tight closeups of dead Thai and Indonesian people and figured that was the only way to cover this story. It's just that to tell a redemptive tale of an impossibly real event — this family did, in fact, all get through this thing intact — he needed to rely more heavily on the truth of the matter and less on his florid movie tricks and the script's ham-handedly easy gut-punches. As is, by the time the plane glides up into the sunlight, these teary people simply function as angels of deliverance. You see, it's really us that are being lifted up out of all this horror, whisked off to somewhere safe where we only have to consider it from afar.