There’s a long stretch in the first half of J.A. Bayona’s mostly sappy disaster drama The Impossible that’s consistently powerful, thanks to a tough, emotionally raw performance from Naomi Watts. Watts plays Maria, a British woman who comes to Thailand with her family (husband, three sons) on vacation right before the 2004 tsunami. After the initial waves separate the family (Maria with the oldest son, her husband Henry, played by Ewan McGregor, with the two youngest), Maria staggers, often wordless, through the devastation, a mess of cuts, bruises and one very alarming leg wound. The dialogue in The Impossible is almost uniformly awful, and the plotting tugs on heartstrings more blatantly than a Hallmark Channel movie. But Watts’ pained face and grim determination as she trudges forward say more about the effects of the disaster than any platitudes about perseverance and familial bonds can.
Unfortunately, those platitudes make up the bulk of the movie, which chronicles the family members’ efforts to reunite following the disaster, and really ramps up the manipulative contrivances once Maria and son Lucas (Tom Holland) get to a hospital and start to reconnect with civilization. Once Bayona switches perspective to Henry and the two younger sons, any power the movie had quickly dissipates, and the second half is devoted entirely to the sentimental uplift of the drawn-out reunion.
It’s also a little troublesome that a movie about a disaster that killed hundreds of thousands and devastated a number of Southeast Asian countries treats its Thai characters mostly as set dressing and focuses instead on a family of well-to-do white Europeans. The potential cultural insensitivity would be forgivable if The Impossible were a more effective story about the human toll of a natural disaster, but its dramatic clumsiness makes its wider shortcomings even more apparent.