Dir. Juan Antonio Bayona
Somewhere Roland Emmerich is slapping his forehead at not having come up with this concept first. After all, the idiotic director of such Big Disaster flicks as Independence Day and 2012 would have been right in his dubious element in this ham-handed, horrifically off-pitch survival tale wherein a rich, beautiful white family all experience the watery horror of the Indonesia Tsunami, only to prove to everyone that you can’t keep a good family down — even if its under millions of gallons of frothing sea water.
Apparently based on a true story (and no offense to the real-life family — it’s not their fault director Juan Antonio Bayona turned their remarkable story into this dreck), the film follows the survival adventure of parents Henry (Ewan McGregor), Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three children, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast), on vacation in a super-luxe resort right on the Indian Ocean (“Best vacation ever!”). Hit nearly directly by this deadly natural catastrophe, the family is quickly separated by the surging, violent water and forced to survive in separate groups, each having no idea about the other family member’s survival.
Maria and eldest son Lucas manage to stick together, and Lucas is forced to care for his ailing mother, helping her clamber to safety even as the enormous surge of water threatens to kill them in a myriad of ways. Meanwhile, Henry and the two younger boys have an easier time of it, escaping virtually unharmed but desperate to find the other two.
The film then charts the course of their suffering, in over-run, completely wrecked hospitals and through annihilated towns, filled with corpses.
Taken simply as a remarkable survival tale, I suppose the film wouldn’t seem quite as manipulative and tone-deaf, but Bayona continually strives for it to be somehow of far greater significance, forcinglayer-upon-layer of classic Hollywood hokum down our throats in the process: Important character reveals are built up and ballyhooed like resurrections; badly wounded characters seemingly die several times over; and the film shamelessly cross-cuts between its struggling tribes at precise dramatic peaks to leave us guessing. It isn’t even above pulling techniques from old Saturday morning kids’ TV shows: Family members unwittingly come achingly close to crossing paths, but don’t see each other, in a classic maneuver fans of “Run Joe Run” will instantly recognize.
It’s something like a Disney shipwreck picture, only with a good deal more blood and silt. McGregor and Watts do their best with Bayona’s indiscretions, but not even they can completely remove the negligible air of the entire enterprise: In a devastation that eventually claimed over 283,000 lives, we are instead focused on one of the incredibly happy few, who happen to also be wealthy vacationers. It’s clear Bayona considers this story uplifting — he relentlessly hammers the idea into our heads — but, instead, it comes off insensitive and wrong-minded, like celebrating the survival of one visiting Swedish family during the Holocaust at the expense of the other 11 million native souls who weren’t so lucky.
But nothing could be more unintentionally indicative of the film’s inept callousness than at the end, when the family, now all reunited and safe from further harm, stroll through an outdoor hospital area filled with suffering orphans, hysterically distraught parents, and hundreds of miserably sick or injured victims in order to climb on board their chartered plane to head to Singapore for a far superior hospital and a welcoming network of people dedicated to helping them get back home. Besides this remarkably lucky family, the plane is filled with nothing but row after row of empty seats.