There are few certainties in this world, but cinema offers one: There’s no global calamity that can’t be rendered relatable by putting a white face on it. While nonnatives accounted for under 4 percent of the 280,000 casualties of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, The Impossible revisits its devastation through the true story of a family of European vacationers (Spanish in real life, British on film). When the clan is violently separated after an apocalyptic tidal wave hits their coastal Thailand resort, Mom (Naomi Watts) manages to corral her eldest son (Tom Holland) and seek shelter in a tree. Meanwhile, Dad (Ewan McGregor) desperately searches for them in hospitals and shelters, losing track of the couple’s two younger boys in the process.
Director J.A. Bayona directed the exuberantly nasty Spanish ghost story The Orphanage (2007), and he treats this natural disaster as the ultimate horror tale, featuring a rising saltwater monster that overwhelms our protagonists. (The impact sequence, with its rush of unceasing mortal danger, is genuinely terrifying.) When it comes to human emotions, however, the filmmaker is all thumbs, crassly fumbling for audience response via clichéd uses of dropped-out sound and the occasional twinkling piano. An impending “impossible” family reunion at a sprawling clinic is callously delayed ad nauseam, the camera delighting in cleverly choreographed missed connections while panning past seas of undifferentiated injured natives—their traumas literally peripheral to the experiential entertainment.
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