When it comes to re-enacting real-life disasters on film, the intent of doing so becomes the chief factor in their perceived success. James Cameron depicted the slow, steady sinking of the Titanic with the popcorn-friendly compromise of an invented love triangle and struck box office gold. Paul Greengrass took a queasy, unflinching approach to capturing the final, futile moments aboard United Flight 93, and few turned out to see it.
The first hour of J.A. Bayona’s “The Impossible,” centered around the 2004 tsunami that laid waste to the coastline populations of Southeast Asia, boasts the immediacy and intensity that defined the latter film, but the second hour succumbs to the perhaps bleaker reality of feel-good convention, calling into question the ultimate purpose of replicating considerable suffering on screen besides the built-in triumph of the human spirit.
Bayona, who previously worked with screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez on 2007’s more literally haunting “The Orphanage,” spends a scant ten minutes introducing the Bennett family as they make their way to the Thai resort where they will spend Christmas together. Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) are discussing whether or not she should return to her career as a practicing physician, while their eldest son of three, Lucas (Tom Holland), can hardly display any patience for his younger brothers when asked to mind them.
Those ten minutes are entirely adequate at fleshing out this clan in the most basic strokes, although the foreboding treatment of the lurking ocean verges on risibility. The fact of the matter is, we as an audience will be no more prone to care about the Bennetts because they have sibling rivalries and work concerns. We’re meant to care by virtue of them being innocent people ambushed by dire circumstances, and once the tidal wave hits, it’s difficult not to have one’s stomach knotted by the devastation and disorientation as experienced by the characters.
It’s a bravura sequence when taken on its own merits, a well-crafted technical feat aligning terrific performances, impeccable visual effects, sickening sound design and makeup to generate a moment of utter horror. The scene is never quite as prone to the questionable digital-rollercoaster vibe given in comparison by a similar sequence at the start of Clint Eastwood’s 2010 drama, “Hereafter,” and the aftermath that litters the remainder of the film informs the visceral struggles therein. It's awesome in the worst sense of the word, a testament to the power of cinema to communicate even a fraction of the intensity of a truly unimaginable true-life situation. (The PG-13 rating is a well-earned one, considering the gruesomeness occasionally on display here.)
The film initially focuses on the efforts by Maria and Lucas to seek out any measure of assistance, and between the completely convincing work by Watts and newcomer Holland, the question of what Arlene Croce famously called “victim art” is kept at bay by the sensations of their moment-to-moment survival -- the gratitude for a once-forbidden soda found among the wreckage, the grasping of a doorknob in the thralls of pain -- until, and even for a while after, Bayona decides to shift back to Henry and the two younger boys around the midpoint.
McGregor then gets to deliver a performance as wrenching as the others, tasked with reuniting his family, at one point asked to once again part with his sons. The film’s intent, though, subtly shifts in its second half; as Henry makes a much-needed phone call back home, it goes from an utterly heartbreaking moment, to one laden with an expected sense of charity once the phone owner offers it to Henry, to a beat of eye-rolling corniness as fellow survivors goad him into taking it like so many grief-stricken cheerleaders.
From there on out, Bayona and Sánchez’ sentimentality has a habit of getting the better of the material, echoing the worst of Spielberg’s tendencies just as they had seemingly duplicated his knack for harrowing spectacle. In their inevitable struggle to match the tension of the first half, the ordeals that follow carry a distinctly scripted air, as the film gives into red herrings, split-second near-misses and sage advice from elderly strangers. It’s all rounded out with a flashback to the tsunami that is rendered every bit as effectively as the original scene, yet has the inevitable feel of back-end padding, a showy reprise in lieu of a natural climax.
The performances and technical accomplishments are strong enough even then to forgive such contrivance at least partially, in addition to the contentious fact that the story being told was originally the true account of a family vacationing from Spain, not of English-speaking Brits. It’s tougher to argue against the penultimate shot of a weeping white face reflected over miles of ruin, an unfortunate summation of the film’s eventual priorities, of grief being portrayed quite literally above it all. For a story about a heaven on Earth becoming a living hell, about clinging onto life in the face of death, about what it means to hurt and to hope, “The Impossible” finds itself evenly torn between human-scale drama and movie-suited Drama.