When it comes to movies about disaster, the usual movie-making impulse is to subject a big cast of characters to a specific cataclysm and observe the diverse ways -- cowardly, heroic, self-sacrificing -- people will react to crisis.
It has worked well enough through the history of film, as recently as Steven Soderbergh's underrated thriller of last year, Contagion.
The Impossible, a film produced in Spain and directed by Juan Antonio Bayona, takes as its backdrop the devastating tsunami that swept the Indian Ocean on Dec. 26, 2004. But the story is a determinedly intimate one, focusing on a single British family.
It's a different approach to the genre. But it works.
The film opens with Maria (Naomi Watts) enduring a turbulent flight from Britain to Thailand, where she, her husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) and their three sons are set to enjoy a tropical Christmas vacation. Henry is harbouring some worries about his job. Their eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) is grumping about his two younger brothers, as eldest children will do.
But on the fateful morning, everyone's perspectives are in for a radical overhaul. While in the vicinity of the hotel pool, a rumbling noise is heard. The power goes off. And Maria watches in horror as trees in the direction of the oceanfront tumble down as if in the path of an unstoppable rolling monster.
That is precisely what the tsunami was, at least for Maria, who is swept under the water, as powerless as a rag doll in a tornado. When she surfaces, wounded but still breathing, only Lucas is with her. The two begin an abbreviated, fruitless search for the rest of the family (they only find a plucky toddler nestled in a tree) before Maria is taken to a hospital. Lucas is forced to grow up quickly as he attempts to aid not only his mother, but other tourists attempting to find their own loved one in the refugee camp-like chaos of a hospital inundated with an unthinkable number of patients.
The disaster killed nearly a quarter of a million people and the film has been taken to task in some quarters for emphasizing the story of a European family (Maria, her husband and sons were actually Spanish) when the citizens of the afflicted countries suffered far worse casualties.
That may be another movie for another time. This particular story achieves its own universality on the strength of these very specific characters. Predictably, Watts was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Maria, and she does excellent work, but in a way, the movie is more about Lucas and his transition from self-centred western brat to a responsible human being.
Holland may not have received the Oscar nom, but he holds his own with Watts adeptly.
From a technical standpoint, director Bayona (The Orphanage) has created a potent recreation of that disaster. But more importantly, he has created a stirring tale of one young man's tumultuous journey to empathy. And for that, one family -- this family -- is more than sufficient.
Excerpts of reviews of The Impossible:
"From the moment the tropical-drinks blender at the poolside bar quits working, and a strange wind off the seafront sucks random objects against the fence, we're thrust into a paradigm-shifting apocalypse that feels entirely too real."
-- Andrew O'Hehir, Salon
"An earnest, extremely gruelling, prodigiously crafted true-life drama that takes one of the worst natural disasters in recorded history and reduces it to a bad day at Club Med. All right, make that a very bad day."
-- Ty Burr, Boston Globe
"The Impossible is technologically a marvel -- the tsunami experience is harrowingly believable -- but also emotionally rich. I hesitate to use this term, since it is so often equated with hokey, but The Impossible is life-affirming."
-- Mary Pols, Time