Set in Thailand at the time of the Boxing Day Tsunami, this film is an attempt to convey the experience of the catastrophe through the experiences of one family, a husband, Henry (Ewan McGregor), and wife, Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three sons, Lucas (Tom Holland), Thomas and Simon, who were holidaying at a beach resort and were separated into two groups, each expecting the other might be dead. The title refers to both the extent of the disaster and to the apparent odds against all five remaining alive and finding one another in the midst of the devastation.
We only get ten – fifteen minutes to establish the family before the water crashes in, carrying everything with it in its terrifying wake. Maria, badly injured, is stranded in a marsh alone with the eldest son, Lucas, and we first follow them as the extent of Maria’s injuries becomes apparent and Luke is pushed to the extent of his physical and moral strength. For some time, the only other person they encounter is a young boy, Dan, seemingly orphaned, and their great fear is that Maria might die of her wounds before they ever find civilisation but when they finally encounter local people and are rescued, Maria’s trial really begins.
The action then shifts to Henry who is in a more urban (though no less devastated) setting, along with the two younger sons and a handful of other survivors. He encounters a much greater number of people and sees more of the chaos of the early rescue operation but decides to leave his sons with the rescue services, asking a fellow tourist to keep an eye on them, while he looks for Maria and Luke.
There have been complaints that the film ignores the plight of native Thais but I think this might be a little unfair. The film is trying to convey the experiences undergone by the real Maria and her family, as recounted in her autobiographical account and it seems likely to me that tourists probably did tend to group together. And, had we added coverage of locals, we could only do so by either adding material irrelevant to Maria’s experiences or significantly altering them. While the producers have opened themselves up to the criticism, to an extent, by changing the family from Spanish to Anglo-Saxon (thereby invalidating any claim that “but this is what really happened”), including Thais, beyond those encountered by Maria and Henry, would have required subtitles. Part of the effectiveness of the film is that we don’t understand what they don’t understand so (presuming you don’t speak Thai) we are immersed in their experience – the rationale, presumably, for changing the family from Spanish, to make a more directly identifiable family to an anglosaxon audience. There remains the question of whether it really is what happened, whether anything got embroidered in the process of gathering and writing the original tale (there is one moment in Lucas’ experience that seems a little saccharine but could, nonetheless be true) and in turning it into a film. So it’s probably best to view it in the light of it being an impression of the experience, rather than a factual account of it.
In any case, it worked pretty well for me, the two ostensible leads being very well acted and the special effects, both of the impact of the wave and of its aftermath, being convincing and compelling. The real star of this, though, is Tom Holland as Lucas. I’m not sure, given this was based on Maria’s account, if the film was originally intended to follow her as the main protagonist but the character of Lucas, as an innocent growing up in the most challenging circumstances imaginable, utterly dominates the film and is magnificently carried off by the young man.