By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 9, 2012 at 11:08PM
Bringing a blockbuster vision to a large-scale disaster that demands it, Juan Antonio Bayona's "The Impossible" delivers a visceral treatment of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami only hampered by the overwrought sentimentalism of the survival tale at its center. Adapting the real-life experiences of a European family pulled apart while on vacation when the tsunami hit, Bayona reconstructs their survival through extraordinary technical prowess at odds with the warm, by-the-numbers inspiration that Sergio G. Sanchez's screenplay falls back on once the terror dies down.
Since an opening title card explains the basis for the events about to unfold, the first appearance of those relentless waves comes as no surprise but still carries plenty of shock. Bayona, whose Spanish ghost movie "The Orphanage" was distinctive for its painstakingly crafted suspense, provides a reminder of his horror roots in the stunning reenactments of the tsunami's powerful assault. The impact is particularly impressive for the lack of CGI and underwater cinematography that depicts the tsunami's attack as a jumble of limbs and detritus rushing across the screen. Until Bayona slows things down, "The Impossible" contains some of the most unsettling sequences in the history of the disaster movie genre.
Little exposition is required to explain the threat at hand, so Bayona spends no more than a few introductory minutes following his subjects before the action begins. Enjoying their seaside getaway at a resort in Khao Lak, Thailand, on Christmas Eve, married couple Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) lounge around a pool area with their seven-year-old Lucas (Tom Holland) as well as younger sons Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin). For a brief moment, their pristine environment freezes as the world start to shake; then the murky water bursts into the horizon and all hell breaks loose for several terrifying minutes. No moment in "The Impossible" generates more fear than when Maria finally surfaces to find herself up to her neck in ocean water and surrounded by utter disarray.
Once the waves calm down, however, "The Impossible" gradually loses steam. The initial post-tsunami experiences of Maria and Lucas, separated from the rest of their clan, hold some interest for the struggles they face in an ominously empty terrain that looks distinctly post-apocalyptic. Fearing a second wave, they trudge forward in spite of Maria's grotesque, debilitating wounds, which Bayona displays in graphic detail. Eventually making their way to a makeshift rescue center, the mother and son get lost in the shuffle of the emergency room, creating the lingering perception that chaos hasn't lifted yet.
Around the one-hour point, the action shifts to Henry and the other children, still at the resort and unsure of their next move. With the assurance that the entire family remains alive, "The Impossible" slows down and loses most of its lingering intensity. Henry's journey to find his wife and son lacks much power since we already know he has little to worry about. And while McGregor invests himself in the role with grave delivery, he's given little to do besides darting his eyes around and tearing up.
Watts spends the majority of the movie incapacitated, leaving newcomer Holland to take charge in a meaty role that finds him gathering strength to help out less fortunate survivors while his mother recuperates. But even as he makes the character's endurance test into a credible process, the dialogue suffers from mawkish exchanges and sobbing interludes supplemented by a soaring orchestral score seemingly lifted from the playbook of Steven Spielberg clichés.
Nevertheless, while "The Impossible" stumbles on its earnestness, it never ceases to be a visual marvel. Re-teaming with his "Orphanage" cinematographer Óscar Faura, Bayona oscillates between wide shots that encompass the destruction from a bird's eye view and extreme close-ups of the brutal details within the mess. Many scenes contain such spectacularly grim imagery that the pauses for pontification are even more painful to watch than the tsunami.
The worst of these involves a nighttime conversation between Lucas and an elderly survivor (Geraldine Chaplin in a brief cameo) as they gaze at the stars and discuss the mysteries of the cosmos. The characters remark on the inability to know when a star has died, establishing a too-neat analogy for Lucas' plight as he wonders about the fate of his other relatives.
The earnest reminders of their perseverance stand out because they're already demonstrated their ability to survive the extreme physical challenges they face at each turn. As a result, "The Impossible" is held back by its commitment to uplift. Bayona rarely lingers on actual death (bodies are glimpsed in no more than a handful of fleeting cutaways). The Westernized point of view may strike some as problematic, but "The Impossible" evades that critique by way of its real-life basis. Instead, it suffers from the greater problem of emphasizing a feel-good plot within the context of mass destruction.
Criticwire grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Summit plans to release "The Impossible" in the heat of awards season in December. Acclaim for the movie's technical accomplishments and performances should help it garner a fair amount of attention, but the bleak scenario and mixed reviews will make its commercial prospects a significant challenge.