As a title, nothing could be more apt than The Impossible. It's almost impossible that a family of five survived being swept away in the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. That they had to search for each other in the swampy aftermath - not knowing who was alive or dead - is even more impossible to imagine.
Yet that's just what happened to a Spanish family who were holidaying in Thailand when the ocean surged back and then rushed overland, engulfing everything in its path and killing 227,898 people from 14 countries. Their horrifying experience is faithfully brought to the screen in this Spanish production, which was shot in Thailand and Spain using a mix of water tanks and computer effects.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona has admitted he couldn't get the budget for the $45 million film without big name stars, which explains the presence of Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor in the lead roles. But it doesn't explain why they speak with strong British accents.
Continuity problems aside, Bayona has forged a powerful, immersive and authentic survival and search movie, even if it lacks deeper themes about life, death and survival. Perhaps he thought his characters were already in deep enough.
Maria (Watts) and Henry (McGregor) are a successful couple with three young boys. They're playing in Phuket's Orchid Hotel pool when an eerie quiet gets their attention. The sudden mass of rushing water smashes Maria against the pool's glass fence and spins her underwater like a rag-doll in a huge, dirty washing machine. She almost drowns but somehow surfaces kilometres downstream and spots her eldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) clinging to debris.
They are separated from the others. They manage to climb a tree. Maria has a horrific injury to the back of her knee. They have no idea if Henry and the other two boys survived. They think it's impossible.
We then follow Henry and the two boys, who survived by climbing the roof of their hotel and begin a long, slow, gruelling search among the swampy ruins for Maria and Lucas. They go from hospital to hospital, even though they don't know who survived either.
In that sense, to call The Impossible an immersive experience is like saying the tsunami was a ripple. We're thrown into the drink quickly and violently to experience it with them; the near-drownings, the injuries, the confusion and worse; the suspicion that your loved-ones are dead and you're all alone.
There is the whiff of apocalypse porn at first, as the devastating wave wreaks havoc in its wake. It's quite a sight to behold and as good as any CG spectacle you'll see. But you quickly remember that this is no Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer schlock-buster. This really happened. And Bayona doesn't play it for cheap thrills. He keeps the tone sombre and the story faithful; so faithful that the real Maria has praised him for being so accurate.
Indeed, the scene where Henry finally gets to borrow a stranger's mobile phone and tells Maria's father he can't find them is as wrenching as any you'll see. McGregor is a marvel, and unlucky not to be Oscar nominated alongside Watts for her stoic turn as the mother who fares the worst of the family.
The Impossible is gut-wrenching stuff and pretty tough to watch. A bit more subtext about natural disasters, dumb luck or the bigger picture - which were handled better in Life of Pi - would give it the gravitas it needs to be more profound. Yet Bayona plays it as a pure disaster and search-for- survivors' movie, and on that level alone, he succeeds in immersing us in an authentic fight for survival.
If only it was just a movie.