As a technical exercise, The Impossible -- the story of one family swept away and torn apart by the 2004 tsunami that destroyed many areas in Southeast Asia -- is a staggering accomplishment. Spanish director Juan Antonio Bayona plunges you into the murky depths of devastation with a dynamism that leaves you gasping for air.
Perhaps Jaws and Open Water are the only other movie experiences that might engender more fear of the sea.
Unlike many other disaster movies, where acting and character development take a back seat to special effects, Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, as a British couple on a Thai holiday with their three boys, are given room to show the full range of grief and fear that would follow having to endure such terror.
The problem with The Impossible is what you don't see. If this movie were the single remaining document chronicling that horrible event, future generations might be forgiven for thinking that well-off Westerners were the only ones whose lives were turned to shambles. The Thai population -- which, in this film, seems to exist solely to assist tourists -- appears to take it all with a quiet resignation. But it shouldn't be forgotten that more than 220,000 people died in the Indonesian earthquake and subsequent tsunami, and most were not vacationers.
Having said that, it's easy to get engrossed in The Impossible, based loosely on the real-life ordeal of a Spanish husband and wife, Enrique Alvarez and Maria Belón. The only thing that seems to be troubling Henry (McGregor) and Maria (Watts) as they loll about on their tropical yuletide holiday is whether they should stay in Tokyo, where they've been living for a few years, or pack up and return to England.
That all changes on the day after Christmas, when the first wave slams into their oceanfront hotel. Maria and the couple's oldest son, Lucas (newcomer Tom Holland in a star-making performance), are separated from Henry and the younger boys. The first half of The Impossible follows Maria and Lucas as they fight to stay together through the surging, pummelling waves and then -- thinking perhaps the rest of the family may be dead -- are reduced to basic survival.
Watts is convincing in her desperation in what is admittedly a show-off role, but she doesn't overdo it. And McGregor, who has lately been making lots of small movies like Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and the lackluster Haywire, is similarly restrained.
While it would've been better if Bayona, working from a script by Sergio G. Sanchez, had incorporated more of what the locals struggled through, what's here is unforgettable, dropping viewers so deep into the watery mayhem that you can almost feel the ocean spray.
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571