The Impossible

Jan 8, 2013

Fine acting  and first-rate graphics make up for a lack of universal application.

The Impossible
Grade: B
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage)
Screenplay: Sergio G. Sanchez (The End) from Maria Belon story
Cast: Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive), Ewan McGregor (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen)
Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 114 min.
by John DeSando

2004’s tsunami in Thailand was horrific by any standard, and director Juan Antonio Bayona’s accounting, The Impossible, does the impossible of making you feel as if you were in the wave’s line of sight.  The graphics (the ten minute sequence drowns Clint Eastwood’s home video viewings of the disaster in Hereafter) and sound are first rate; the story is absorbing but flawed.

Maria (Naomi Watts); her husband, Henry (Ewan McGregor); and their three children are vacationing when the wave hits. They are separated. Watts is particularly effective as loving mother in the set up and heroic mother as she swims to save oldest son, Lucas (Tom Holland).  Afterwards she is hospitalized and loses valuable time to secure the Oscar, if you’ll allow me to be crassly commercial.

Yet, my callous statement expresses my frustration with the film: So much is given to Fernando Velazquez’s original music to heighten the sadness that the film turns out to be manipulative rather more than insightful.  That this is one white British family’s true story, albeit the true story of a Spanish family, does not compensate for seeing into the heart of the tragedy through the eyes of the Thais (Ed Gonzalez of Slant fully comments on this subject).

The film in almost every way gives into the sentimentality of the eventual reconciliation rather than trying to understand the effect on the native people, the music being one component of that deference to emotion rather than discovery. The Impossible’s lack of broader focus than one vacationing family’s struggle left me feeling I do not fully understand the scope of the tragedy for the Thais or the impact on Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. In that sense, it becomes a high class thriller/terror film from which you must extrapolate broader meaning.

Discovering how locals, not wealthy tourists, survive the disaster would have been more rewarding. In the end, The Impossible is a poignant story of one family’s struggle to survive and the cohesiveness it achieves through the challenge. From a dramatic point of view, that approach would be good enough if it weren’t that the wave’s impact goes far beyond one foreign family.

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at
He also appears on Fox 28’s Man Panel.
Contact him at