If a Ewan McGregor starring dramatisation of the Boxing Day tsunami sounds a tad distasteful, well, it is.
In a disaster movie, destruction is the point. We’re given all the fun of watching the world as it falls to pieces and then we get to step outside the cinema and carry on with our lives.
The Impossible is a movie that fits squarely into this tradition and the fact that it’s based on the true story of a Spanish family who got swept away by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami doesn’t prevent writer Sergio G Sanchez and director Juan Antonio Bayona, who previously worked together on Spanish chiller The Orphanage, from revelling in the chaos and gore. There are entire 10-minute stretches where some may prefer to peek through their fingers.
Even though the film’s emotional climax should be its dramatic apex, nothing can live up to the moment that the wave hits in the opening act. There’s a far-off, sub-bass rumble. Household items begin to tremble, Jurassic Park-style. Tiny figures, frozen in awe, realise it’s too late to run. The roar gets louder and louder, enveloping us, and then – wham! Black. Silence.
Bayona and Sanchez know that this is their big money shot. It’s why they revisit the moment at the end of the film from terrifying new angles, as one character relives the horror in a dream. This would be interesting if the movie made any sincere effort to get inside its victims’ minds, but like they say, this isn’t that kind of movie.
It’s about spectacular effects and a satisfying narrative that strings them together. People cry when they’re sad, shout when they’re angry and, at one point, have that classic conversation about how some stars burn out before their light reaches us, to make a spurious point about hope.
Watts and McGregor are both robust, likeable actors who convince in their roles as the mother and father of three young boys – now British, rather than Spanish – who are holidaying in Thailand when disaster strikes. Watts is required to do little more than groan in anguish, sob softly and turn more and more purple until she looks like an extra from The Walking Dead.
McGregor gets some slapstick wisecracks but no visible injuries other than a sexy scratch across his cheekbone. It just doesn’t seem fair. Between them they carry the film, even though the child actors aren’t up to the job. It’s when the youngsters talk that you can hear the creaks in the dialogue.
We shouldn’t place too much blame on Tom Holland, 16, who has a tough job in his substantial role, but it’s hard to keep disbelief suspended when he delivers lines like, "Mum, look at you, we need help, we cannot risk it" with all the emotional torment of a golfer who’s just hoofed one into the bunker.
Thrillers based on real stories are nothing new, but the Boxing Day tsunami happened only eight years ago and claimed around 300,000 lives – the equivalent to a 100 9/11s. The fact that the catastrophe happened 8,000 miles from Hollywood (and 6,000 from Madrid) goes some way towards explaining why it’s treated here with all of the sensitivity and ambiguity of Armageddon.
Ewan McGregor has not been known for his stellar film choices of late.
Argh! Nooo! Shit! Did you see that? Ooh! Aw! Ow!
Kind of offensive when you think about it.