The Spanish crew behind supernatural thriller The Orphanage turns its attentions to the real-life horrors of the 2004 Asian Tsunami disaster, but the results prove too exploitative and insensitive to stomach.

On Boxing Day 2004 an earthquake in the Indian Ocean sent a massive tsunami crashing into the Western Coastline of South East Asia, laying waste to massive coastal regions of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as the Eastern coastlines of Sri Lanka and India. More than 200,000 lives were lost on that day and well over 1.5 million people displaced by the damage caused.

The Impossible focuses on the plight of a single British family, holidaying in the idyllic Thai resort of Ko Lak, and how the husband, wife and three young sons battled to survive and reunite with each other after the tsunami hit. The film immediately came under fire for largely ignoring the thousands of indigenous victims of the disaster, instead focusing almost entirely on rich white tourists who were holidaying in the area. Defenders have been quick to point out that the script is based on true events – and on one Spanish family in particular – but there is no escaping the script’s reluctance to develop any native Thai characters, save for a single one-dimensional nurse.

However, the film’s crimes extend far beyond merely its blinkered perspective of these terrible events. Director J.A. Bayona never lets us forget that his background is in horror movies, as every moment of terror, pain and anguish in The Impossible is ramped up to eleven, resulting in a relentless rollercoaster of pain and suffering – for the audience as well as the characters. The film won’t even allow itself to set the scene calmly or with restraint. The opening shot is of an aeroplane roaring through the air at high-speed. We cut inside to meet the central family, already stressed out and uptight as some air turbulence exposes their jittery nature and frayed family dynamic. Within minutes of their arrival, Henry (Ewan McGregor), Maria (Naomi Watts) and their three young sons have been torn apart by the ferocious tsunami that lays waste to their idyllic beachside resort as they frolic in the pool.

What follows is a spectacularly staged 15-minute sequence as Maria and oldest son, Lucas (an incredible Tom Holland) are caught in the fast-flowing, debris-strewn waters that threaten to drown, batter, entangle and separate them at any moment. Eventually the waters subside and they find themselves swept far inland, emotionally and physically shredded, but faced with the seemingly impossible task of seeking out help, and the rest of their family.

The Impossible is exhausting to watch, with Bayona wringing every scene of every last drop of whichever emotion he wants his audience to be feeling at that particular moment. The sad scenes are unbearably sad, the thrilling scenes pulse-poundingly so, even the brief moments of levity and happiness are almost dizzyingly euphoric. Subtlety just doesn’t seem to be something on the film’s agenda, and as a result the film can’t help but feel exploitative. It’s a textbook case of disaster porn – needlessly gratuitous one minute, and overwhelmingly earnest the next. The cast is strong, with young Tom Holland more than holding his own opposite pretty faultless turns from McGregor and Watts, but the material rarely gives them space to be anything but histrionic.

If anyone is to blame here, its Bayona and his scriptwriter Sergio G. Sanchez, not for their lack of talent – as many of the scenes are incredibly powerful and effective taken on their own – but for the sheer relentless force of their enthusiasm to detail every agonising moment of this horrific natural disaster. Their efforts to highlight and celebrate this triumph of the human spirit over crushing global scale adversity is horribly misjudged and the result is a relentless, draining experience that – while perhaps coming somewhere close to accurately depicting what the real event may have been like – can’t help but feel inappropriate and insensitive when blown up on the big screen.