It’s been five years since J.A. Bayona debuted with the terrifying, tearjerking ghost story The Orphanage, and now he makes a belated return to the director’s chair with The Impossible, based on the true story of a family that was visiting Thailand in 2004 when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit. The subject matter doesn’t immediately seem to have much in common with The Orphanage, but both films lean heavily on the bond between parents and children, and both elicit sympathy via scenes of mothers and fathers faced with the loss of their kids. And like The Orphanage, The Impossible confirms that Bayona is a major talent, with a skill for constructing sequences that build tension as masterfully as Steven Spielberg did in his ’70s heyday.
The problem is that Sergio G. Sánchez’s script for The Impossible isn’t in the same class as Bayona’s direction. The movie’s dialogue tends to be either functional or corny, constraining the characters to one or two levels: snippy, concerned, brave, despondent, et cetera. It’s fortunate for Bayona that so much of The Impossible’s action is visually spectacular, because prior to the enormous wall of water that hits them, the protagonists aren’t especially good company. In the film’s middle hour, when couple Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor have to discern from moment to moment how best to find each other in a devastated foreign land, Bayona smartly cans the chatter and just shows them thinking their way around obstacles, telling their story mostly with pictures.
Whether it’s a responsible choice to turn a real-life disaster into a stunning special effect—or to depict the natives of Thailand as “obstacles,” as opposed to people who’ve just had their own lives upended—is worth debating further. But The Impossible ultimately isn’t about the tsunami and its victims per se; it’s about this one family, and their resourcefulness in the face of disaster. Bayona’s tsunami sequence is bound to garner accolades—and rightfully so, since it’s 10 of the most harrowing minutes moviegoers are likely to see this year—but the film is filled with smaller but no less gripping scenes of the characters scrambling toward each other, agonizingly slowly, amid a landscape of wreckage and strangers. On the whole, The Impossible is a superb example of the “man against the elements” film, driven by the panic that sets in when one family member fears never seeing the others again. With that as his starting point, Bayona deftly pushes the audience’s buttons.