The story (based on fact) of a family torn apart in the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami. As Mum (Watts) lies injured in hospital, Dad (McGregor) and older son Lucas (Holland) battle to reunite the brood.
Although Clint Eastwood’s regrettable Hereafter touched on the subject, it’s surprising that it’s taken eight years for a major feature film to centre on the events of December 26, 2004, when a series of giant tidal waves killed over 200,000 people across multiple South Asian territories. Perhaps producers previously thought it was too soon, or perhaps no filmmaker had the technical acumen and wherewithal to realise a natural disaster unimaginable to anyone who wasn’t there. Enter gifted Spanish upstart Juan Antonio Bayona, who made an auspicious debut with his 2007 ghost story The Orphanage. It was a stylish effort, but couldn’t prepare us for the astonishing sensory assault of this very different breed of horror film, which evokes the crashing, crushing impact of the tsunami in a ten-minute sequence of unparalleled effects work and bone-rattling sound design. This may be a Spanish-made production, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the work of Hollywood’s spiffiest studios; Señors Cameron and Spielberg should be looking nervously over their shoulders.
The human drama within this riveting reconstruction is similarly jolting but somewhat less sure-footed, beginning with the questionable approach to matters of ethnicity. The screenplay is based on the true story of the Spanish Belon family, flung far apart when the wave hits their Thai beach resort. But for all the highlighting of the word “true” in an opening title card, they’ve mutated here into a blondly British clan. It’s a needless change that plays uncomfortably into Hollywood’s cultural homogeneity, as does the narrative’s emphasis on holidaying Westerners at the expense of Asian victims. At least the change was made to accommodate actors as committed and sympathetic as Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. Ditto 16 year-old Tom Holland, a remarkable discovery as the stroppy eldest son tasked with tracking down his dad and brothers as his critically injured mother languishes in hospital. All three leads find an appropriately high emotional key to match the brute force of Bayona’s technical wizardry, resulting in a blockbuster that should have your heart pounding and breaking at once.
You can take issue with its overly Anglicised approach to an international tragedy, but there's no denying that this rousing, superbly acted, no-holds-barred melodrama is a mighty feat of physical filmmaking.