There's a dream sequence near the end of Juan Antonio Bayona's disaster film, The Impossible (2012) that's just about the most frightening thing I've seen in any movie ever. It's a callback to an interesting lacunae during the film's big set piece in the first act, in which the screen goes black for a bit when the 2004 Christmas tsunami sweeps into the resort where our protagonists are vacationing. That sequence is profoundly terrifying, too, and so well-conceived and executed that it temporarily paralyzes whatever cognitive function distinguishes fiction from fact, real life from make-believe. But the dream sequence at the end? that scene compounds that cognitive short circuit by adding a sense of existential terror and dread. We see Naomi Watts swept along by the wave from underwater. She's lacerated and pummeled by debris, surrounded by bodies swept along with her. Then, ever so briefly, the film slows down into something like the Matrix's bullet time, and the audience should reset their sense of reality because the movie is showing its hand as a movie, but I didn't make that leap. It's the bubble of air just escaping her lips as the film slows down. That bubble is the coup de grace. In that moment, I was entirely surrendered to the film. In retrospect, I can fault the film for privileging the narrative of movie star-attractive white people over the millions of Asians swept away by the same waves, I can cringe a little at the fact that the real Spanish family at the heart of the story has been whitewashed by the film, but in that moment those considerations were a million light years from my mind.
The story here follows The Bennetts, Henry and Maria, and their sons, Lucas, Thomas, and Simon, as they travel to a vacation resort in Thailand. Henry is worried about his job. Maria, a doctor who retired to raise her kids, opines that she can go back to work if that happens. The kids bicker and play as kids will. The landing in Thailand has been turbulent, an omen perhaps. On the third day of their seaside vacation, the tsunami hits. Henry gathers up the two youngest kids and vanishes in the waves as Maria watches. Maria is swept through a plate glass window and into the wave and into darkness. When she surfaces, she's near her oldest son, Lucas, and the two of them struggle to grasp each other in the current. Then a second wave crashes into them. Maria is badly injured, but she and Lucas wade through a blasted landscape to find shelter. Lucas is terrified that another wave will come. Maria is just trying to hold on to her conscious resolve. Eventually the two of them make their way to an hospital, where Maria clings to life. Lucas whiles away the time as his mother awaits treatment by helping other displaced persons find their loved ones. Henry for his part, has also survived, as have the younger kids. Henry has stayed near the ruins of the resort, looking for Maria and Lucas. He sends the two younger kids to shelter and continues the search alone, without success. Eventually, he moves inland, chasing after his younger sons and checking shelters and hospitals as he goes.
This is a film with good performances. The big names in the cast are Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor and both of them are credible as lost tourists in distress. Watts's character has the additional burden of dying for the camera (or coming close, anyway) and contrary to Hollywood conventions, she doesn't do so beautifully. She's remarkably selfless in this. It helps that this wasn't made in Hollywood, but in Spain, and by a director who is willing to torment his characters unmercifully. Watts gets ghastly injuries to aid her performance. The best performance in the film, is given by Tom Holland, though. He plays Lucas. It's a demanding role, both physically and emotionally, and this kid sells it. He's alternately traumatized, resourceful, panicked, and relieved. Holland hits all of this. This is all a startling contrast to the usual disaster movie formula in which there aren't characters, so much as there are human figures to give the special effects some scale. This is better than that.
The filmmakers here are on speaking terms with horror. Director Juan Antonio Bayona likes to deliver gut-punches to the audience. There's a scene in his first feature, The Orphanage, in which a woman is hit by a car. If you've seen the movie, you remember it. It's a shocking moment in an otherwise classically restrained ghost story. In this film, Bayona lands multiple punches of the same sort. It's a brutalizing movie to watch, whether from the piles of corpses arrayed throughout the movie or the various injuries on the living. The wound on the back of Maria's leg, when we first see it, is a gore shot that might make even a hardened gorehound wince. This isn't ostensibly a horror movie, so this willingness to inflict horror on the viewer is unexpected. Bayona turns out to have a mastery of large scale special effects, too. While much of this film must have been created in a computer, the filmmakers have hidden this. It's all utterly convincing. It's been years since I saw a film with as many "how the hell did they film that?" moments as this one. This doesn't look like a special effects film, which is high praise given the number of effects there must be on screen.
Still, the thing that makes all of this tick are small moments: the turbulence on the airplane at the start of the film, a shot of Naomi Watts silhouetted in the sun, a truck full of corpses, a red ball being kicked by kids in the aftermath, an interlude of stargazing. There's an awareness here that the specific transforms into the universal if you pay attention to it. Which is good because, dramatically, this has some serious deficiencies. This is boxed in by its source material. The family on which the Bennetts are based all survived the tsunami, so regardless of the power of its set pieces, the plot and the drama consists of separation, struggle, reunion, catharsis, like clockwork. Bayona does his best to create artificial suspense in the scenes where the family is looking for each other, but these are the elements of the film that ring false. The intrusion of scenes of Hitchcockian suspense seem misplaced here. Still, the ending of the film is surprisingly ambiguous. As the Bennetts board an airplane that will take them to Singapore, they pass a crying woman who is desperately searching a bulletin board for word of her loved ones. As the plane ascends into the sky, Maria looks back at the devastation below. What has previously been personal and comprehensible only within the realm of her own senses becomes large beyond comprehension. This softens the movie's deficiencies some, because these scenes are haunting. Bayona is wise to leave the audience with these images rather than the joy of the Bennetts' reunion, because when you get down to it, their story is so insignificant in relation to the tragedy around it that it seems almost obscenely trivial. If we view them as a point of view on the ground, then the movie is defensible, even from charges of racism. Fortunately, the filmmakers seem to understand this.