The deadly 2004 tsunami upended the lives of one Spanish family. Now Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star in a gripping film about the ordeal.

  • Movie

Scary movies typically frighten you with a bad guy, maybe a Nazi or an alien or a lab experiment gone haywire. But perhaps nothing is more terrifying than a natural disaster — an event so extraordinary that its legal classification is ”act of God.” The Impossible (rated PG-13) tells the true story of how one family managed to survive such an act: the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people.

Henry (Ewan McGregor), his wife, Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three young sons are spending the Christmas holiday at a resort in Thailand. One moment they’re relaxing by a pool, the next they’re literally swept away into chaos. The sheer horror that unfolds — from the violence of the crashing waves to the desperate search for missing and injured relatives — is made all the more heart-wrenching by the knowledge that every single episode actually happened.

The real María Belón is a 48-year-old Spaniard who spent a year recuperating from the injuries she sustained in the tragedy. (Her husband, Enrique Alvarez, and their sons, Lucas, now 18, Tomas, 16, and Simon, 13, all survived with only minor injuries.) As she recovered from 16 separate operations, Belón listened to music on the radio. When she called the station in Singapore to thank them for helping her pass the time, she ended up relating her family’s ordeal — not knowing that future Impossible producer Belén Atienza was out there listening. ”[Atienza] came to me with María’s story, and then I found myself telling and retelling it to friends,” says director J.A. Bayona, who reteamed with The Orphanage screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez for the project. ”There was something there…something universal to tell.”

Turning the family’s experience into a film ended up taking almost five years. (It took six F/X companies a full year to create the 10-minute sequence depicting the first deadly wave.) Belón dedicated herself to making sure the filmmakers stayed true to what she calls the soul of the story. ”I didn’t want it overdramatized — crying when there was no crying, pain when there was no pain,” she says. ”We don’t need fiction.”

Bayona had no intention of straying too far from what actually happened anyway. ”I wanted to be faithful to what happened,” he says, adding that it was an emotional experience to shoot in places that had been devastated by the disaster. ”We never disconnected. You go to a hotel or a restaurant and each person you meet has a story about the tsunami. We had an extra responsibility to do this right and honor these people.”

To better ground the film in reality, Belón worked closely with Watts during the nearly $40 million production — and even returned to the very same Thai resort she was visiting when the waves hit in 2004. ”It was hard sometimes, but it’s nothing compared to what really happened. The hard part is to think and speak about the people who never found their missing people,” she says, her voice breaking. ”That is hard. Because we were the lucky ones.”

For Bayona, the family’s ordeal underscores the elusive role fate plays in our lives. ”One of the things I like about this story is that they didn’t do anything to survive,” he says. ”They were just lucky. Working with these people turned into a vital learning experience about life.”

The Impossible

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 104 minutes
  • Juan Antonio Bayona