Perilous incidents have riveted audiences since Pauline was tied to the railroad tracks, but in the hundred-year history of cinema, few thrillers have been as emotionally compelling as “The Impossible.”
While this true story about the Asian tsunami of 2004 offers state-of-the-art special effects, it’s built upon the basic unit of drama: the family.
The Bennetts, a British family vacationing on a Thai island, are businessman Henry (Ewan McGregor), doctor Maria (Naomi Watts), and their sons, Lucas, Thomas and Simon (Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast).
Although the family seems affluent and happy as they play with their presents on Christmas Day, there is a minimum of backstory before the disaster that will define their characters. On the morning of Dec. 26, the earth shudders, the birds scatter and a wall of water sweeps across the island like a bomb blast.
That epic scene is breathtaking, not only for the human and natural toll it evokes but for the cinematic craft it represents. (Somewhere, Cecil B. DeMille is commanding his crew to reimagine the Red Sea.)
For most of the film we follow the critically wounded Maria and the overwhelmed Lucas as they slog through the wreckage toward higher ground. In Holland’s extraordinary performance, we watch a terrified boy become a brave young man, jolted into an awareness of death but then moved to help others, starting with his own half-naked mother.
In the tangle of tree limbs they find an abandoned toddler whose wordless trust inspires them to keep moving, toward a village, a hospital and a possible reunion with the rest of their family.
The subsequent turn of events elicits such at torrent of tears that it’s easy to overlook the hand of director Juan Antonio Bayona (“The Orphanage”) as he’s pulling our strings. This is deft artistry applied to resonant raw material.
Granted, the immensely greater suffering of the Thai locals is subordinated to a story about attractive white people (who in real life were Spaniards, like Bayona); but this family’s fight to survive for each other is so elemental that it’s impossible not to be carried along.
What “The Impossible” • Four stars out of four • Rating PG-13 • Run time 1:54 • Content Realistic disaster scenes, graphic injuries and brief nudity