We are introduced to the Bennetts as they land in Thailand and settle into a fancypants and very expensive resort hotel for Christmas. They didn't get the third floor room with a sea view they reserved (bummer) but instead get upgraded to a much nicer beachside villa (membership has its privileges we guess). We get a few little character details -- father Henry (Ewan McGregor) is a worrier who might be losing his job, while his eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) is an aloof pre-teen with no time for his little brothers -- but all that is forgotten once disaster strikes.
If there is an Oscar for moaning in pain, Watts will certainly be a lock. A good portion of the first 40 minutes of the film are dedicated to Maria either screaming for her son, or being in total agony as she nurses a leg that has been severely punctured by a tree branch. As she hobbles along, Lucas takes on the leadership role of sorts, and the duo take a stray Swedish child, Daniel (John Sundberg), with them as well. Taking refuge in a tree, they are eventually spotted by some locals who get the injured and increasingly weak Maria onto a truck, and bring everyone to a nearby hospital that is teeming with various victims of the tsunami. Lucas understably stays doggedly by Maria's side, but is encouraged by his mother to look after others who need assistance as well, and he begins to spend his time helping people who are looking for their loved ones in the hospital.
It's hard to describe just how manipulative and over-the-top Bayona's picture tends to be, but it's safe to say there isn't an emotional beat that the director doesn't sledgehammer just once. At least half a dozen times, one member or another of the Bennett famliy vulnerably says "I'm scared" or "I'm scared too." Moments of uplift or heartbreak are not just punctuated by Fernando Velázquez's bland score, but drowned in it, while the screenplay trades in the kind of heart-tugging sentiment that this real life tragedy doesn't deserve. From the opening moments of film which features a black screen and the sound of and omnious roar that fills the speaker, to the very last frames that swell with strings as the Bennetts look down on the destruction they've survived, Bayona doesn't seem to trust the audience to understand the magnitude of the tsunami on their own.
There is another version of "The Impossible," a much more subtle one, that can tell the story of the Bennetts while also expanding the scope to chronicle the wide ranging and long lasting devastation the tsunami left in its wake. This isn't it, obviously. But unfortunately, even viewed as a straightforward tale of survival, "The Impossible" strikes an insincere tone, one that doesn't let the obviously powerful moments stand on their own, but instead follows the beautiful Hollywood stars to safety, while the real story is left on the ground. [D+]