The film received positive reviews from critics for its direction and its acting, especially for Watts who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama, and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role.
Henry Bennett (Ewan McGregor), his wife Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three sons Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin), and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) go on a Christmas holiday in 2004 to Khao Lak, Thailand. Arriving on Christmas Eve, they settle in and begin to enjoy the brand new Orchid Beach Resort. Two days later on Boxing Day, the massive 2004 tsunami inundates the area.
Maria and Lucas eventually emerge from the swirling water and find one another, with Maria having sustained serious injuries to her leg and chest. They help a young boy, Daniel, from the wreckage and are soon found by locals who transfer them to a local hospital in the city of Takua Pa. Daniel is separated from them during the journey. At the hospital, Maria encourages Lucas to help others find their family members while she goes into surgery for her chest injuries.
Meanwhile, Henry, Thomas and Simon have also survived and are together. Henry leaves the two boys with another family who head to the mountains for safe shelter while he stays behind to search for Maria and Lucas. While out looking, injured and alone, he is picked up by a passer-by and driven to a nearby bus shelter to wait out with other survivors. Communication facilities are scarce but eventually a tourist named Karl (Sönke Möhring), who has also been separated from his family, lends Henry his cell phone to contact his relatives. Henry promises Maria's father he will look everywhere for his family and that he will find them. Karl tells the group his wife had left him a note confirming they were at the beach, their location when the wave hit. He volunteers to accompany Henry to look for Maria and Lucas and his own family, too.
While Maria is in surgery, her medical chart is mixed-up with another patient who has died. Lucas returns to find his mother's bed empty and is then taken to a tent where children without families are kept safe. The mistake is discovered when Lucas cannot identify any of the dead woman's jewelry and he is subsequently reunited with his mother who has been moved to a private room in the ICU. In the hospital while he waits, Lucas finds Daniel who has been reunited with his father.
Henry and Karl search for their families in various places before they arrive at the hospital where Henry is given five minutes to look. Karl gives him a piece of paper with his family members’ names on. The vehicle carrying Thomas and Simon also stops outside the hospital and the boys get off so Simon can urinate. From a distance, Lucas recognizes his father and while searching him out in the chaotic crowd outside, Lucas' siblings spot him and they reunite. Henry finds the three of them together. He learns that Maria is in the hospital ready to undergo more surgery for her leg, which she survives. Flashbacks reveal how she came to be badly injured and how she surfaced the water. While in surgery, Lucas tells his father he has something really important to tell Maria.
The following day, the family boards an ambulance airplane to Singapore so Maria may receive further medical treatment, arranged by their insurance company. On the plane, Lucas tells his mother he knows Daniel is safe. Maria looks out the window at the chaos left behind.Naomi Watts as Maria Bennett, a doctor and the mother of the Bennett family.
Ewan McGregor as Henry Bennett, the father of the Bennett family.
Tom Holland as Lucas Bennett, the 12-year-old son.
Samuel Joslin as Thomas Bennett, the seven-and-a-half-year-old son.
Oaklee Pendergast as Simon Bennett, the five-year-old son.
Marta Etura as Simone
Sönke Möhring as Karl Schweber, a German man trying to find his wife and daughter. He joins Henry to find their families.
Geraldine Chaplin as the Old Woman
Ploy Jindachote as the Caregiver
Jomjaoi Sae-Limh as the Red Cross Nurse
Nicola Harrison as the Woman in charge of Simon and Thomas
The film was a co-production of Spanish film companies Apaches Entertainment and Telecinco Cinema, and employed much of the crew from The Orphanage, including the director, writer, production manager, cinematographer, composer, and editor. Principal photography began 23 August 2010, in Alicante, Spain, and continued in October in Thailand.
Director Juan Antonio Bayona decided not to specify the nationalities of the main characters in order to create a universal film in which nationalities were irrelevant to the plot.
The tsunami was recreated with a mixture of digital effects and real water surges filmed in slow motion created in a water tank in Spain using miniatures that were destroyed by a huge wave. Bayona committed to working with real water rather than a computer-generated wave because he wanted the story to be authentic. This meant Watts and Holland spent five weeks filming physically and psychologically demanding scenes in a massive water tank. 16-year-old Holland later described it as a "scary environment ...You can imagine how tiring and brutal that was."
The Impossible is the second collaboration between Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor after appearing together in the 2005 film Stay.
Warner Bros. released the film in Spain on 11 October 2012. The United States distribution rights were pre-bought by Summit Entertainment. A teaser trailer was released on 26 December 2011. After a full-length English language trailer was released on 20 August 2012, a United States release date of 21 December 2012 was confirmed by Summit. It was released on 11 October 2012 in Spain and in Ireland and the United Kingdom on 1 January 2013. The film was released in the US on 4 January 2013 and was made available by Summit Entertainment through a website streaming the film to members of SAG-AFTRA for consideration of the SAG awards.
It was released on DVD/Blu-ray in the US and Canada on Tuesday, 23 April 2013, with a European release 13 May 2013.
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an approval rating of 81% based on 183 reviews, with an average rating of 7.3/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The screenplay isn't quite as powerful as the direction or the acting, but with such an astonishing real-life story at its center, The Impossible is never less than compelling." At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted mean rating to reviews, the film had an average score of 73 out of 100, based on 42 critics, indicating "generally favourable reviews."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave a perfect four-star rating, praising the performances of Watts and McGregor, and the direction of Bayona. He called it "one of the best films of the year".
Deborah Young of The Hollywood Reporter gave a very positive review, praising the performances of the two leading stars, stating that "Watts packs a huge charge of emotion as the battered, ever-weakening Maria whose tears of pain and fear never appear fake or idealised. McGregor, cut and streaked with excessive blood he seems too distraught to wash away, keeps the tension razor-sharp as he pursues his family in a vast, shattered landscape." About the film she added, "The Impossible is one of the most emotionally realistic disaster movies in recent memory – and certainly one of the most frightening in its epic re-creation of the catastrophic 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami."
Justin Chang of Variety magazine gave a positive review, praising Bayona's directing and Sánchez's writing: "Collaborating again after their impressive 2007 debut feature, The Orphanage, Bayona and Sanchez get many things right here, starting with their decision to eschew a more panoramic view of the disaster to follow one family's journey from start to finish." About the performances of the main cast members he added, "Watts has few equals at conveying physical and emotional extremes, something she again demonstrates in a mostly bedridden role, and McGregor, in one of his better recent performances, manages to turn a simple phone call home into a small aria of heartbreak. Holland, in his live-action bigscreen debut, is wonderful as a kind, somewhat short-tempered kid who still has plenty to learn, setting the tone for similarly heartrending turns by young Joslin and Pendergast."
Damon Wise of The Guardian gave the film four stars out of five. He also praised the performances, stating that "as Maria, Watts is both brave and vulnerable, and her scenes with the young Lucas (the excellent Tom Holland) are among the film's best, with adult and child now unexpected equals, the mother humbled, the son rising to the challenge. McGregor, meanwhile, gives one of his best performances as the sad and desperate Henry, trying to play the hero, the provider, while knowing his cause is almost certainly lost." About the film, he added: "Part of the appeal of this affecting and powerful drama is that it puts the viewer right in the moment at every stage, using authentic locations and tsunami survivors to hammer home the reality of this tragedy."
Eric Kohn of IndieWire gave the film a "B-" grade and stated that the film "suffers from the greater problem of emphasising a feel-good plot within the context of mass destruction."
Criticism has focused on the concept of whitewashing, the entertainment industry's attempt at making ethnic characters more appealing to white money-spending masses by making ethnic characters less exotic and more "white". The film focuses on a white family on vacation who get separated in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami but who eventually return to their intact homes in the west. Thais are present in the film when they offer a helping hand to the white family members and as medical staff at the hospital where the injured wife is treated, but are not present as main characters. Though the tsunami killed over 200,000 and severely affected the lives of roughly 2 million people in many Asian nations, the film has been criticised for its focus on the white experience while marginalising Asians and minimising the reality that Asians continue to live with the damage brought by the tsunami to their homes and livelihoods.
According to The New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott, this narrowly-defined cinematic framing of the disaster through European and not Thai lenses represents "a troubling complacency and a lack of compassion in The Impossible," a movie which he found to be "less an examination of mass destruction than the tale of a spoiled holiday."
Simon Jenkins, a British survivor from Portsmouth, wrote to The Guardian, stating the film is "beautifully accurate". This was in response to critics commenting that the film is "overdramatic" and "whitewashed". He says of the comments, "As I must, I've never been the sort of person to revisit and analyse events of the past, but some of these articles frustrated me. Had this film been purely about the tale of a western middle class family's 'ruined' holiday then I would have agreed. For me, it was the exact opposite. Rather than concentrating on the 'privileged white visitors', the film portrayed the profound sense of community and unity that I experienced in Thailand, with this family at the centre of it. Both for my (then) 16-year-old self and the Belón family, it was the Thai people who waded through the settled water after the first wave had struck to help individuals and families... The Thai people had just lost everything – homes, businesses, families – yet their instinct was to help the tourists."
Support UK, a support group for survivors of the tsunami, lobbied to have the trailer screened with a warning notice beforehand. A spokesman for Odeon Cinemas stated that it had no control over the content of the BBFC-approved trailer, saying, "We can only apologise for any offence caused on this occasion."
The Impossible was a box office success. In Spain the film was released on 11 October 2012, and opened in 638 cinemas, grossing $11,569,306 on its opening weekend, ranking No. 1 with a per-cinema average of $18,134, the highest-grossing opening weekend for a film in Spain. On its second weekend the film remained at No. 1 and grossed $9,016,065 with a per-cinema average of $14,022. On its third weekend it remained at No. 1 and made $5,768,184 with a per-cinema average of $9,098. The film ended up earning $54,536,668 at the Spanish box office and $180,274,123 worldwide, compared with its estimated $45 million production budget.