So terrifying is the 2004 tsunami as imagined in "The Impossible," its destructive force engulfing the screen with such violent menace, that the imagery alone elicits a rising dread so intense you may feel yourself gasping for breath.
Spanish-born director Juan Antonio Bayona must have been tempted to let the monstrous waves triggered by the Indian Ocean earthquake that devastated Southeast Asia and left hundreds of thousands dead overwhelm the dramatic story he tells.
That never happens in this profoundly moving film inspired by the real-life experience of the Alvarez Belon family on that fateful December day. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor star as Maria and Henry, on holiday with their three boys at a beach resort in Thailand, and the film introduces gifted young Tom Holland as the couple's oldest son, Lucas.
Bayona achieves a rare sense of balance between the big and the powerful as well as the small and the intimate in the family's survival against impossible odds, no doubt the inspiration for the title. Their situation was heartbreaking, their courage in the face of it humbling. It is the kind of ode to the human spirit that you hope comes along, and not just during the holiday season.
One surprise is that it took a horror auteur to pull off such a grounded film without letting the tsunami, or the sentiment, get out of control, although he had an abundance of both in Sergio G. Sanchez's screenplay. You could argue that "The Impossible" could have benefited from more nuance in the dialogue, but that flaw only slightly dims the power of the film.
As the movie opens, Maria and Henry are on a turbulent flight with their boys, Lucas, Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast). A smooth landing and 24 hours later, the Christmas presents dispensed and wrapping paper crumpled on the floor, they head to the pool. Bayona uses that brief calm before the tsunami to do more than introduce us to the people whose journey we will follow.
In a handful of scenes, the director lays the framework for the way in which he will use sight and sound to define their experience. The deafening roar of the jet engines, the glassy ocean underneath it, the eerie silence that thickens in the moments before the tsunami hits, and the muffled screams of Maria when it does, are beyond even what Bayona achieved in his petrifying Cannes Film Festival debut a few years ago. "The Orphanage," also written by Sanchez, was a far more traditional genre film, though the director's understanding of the fear that comes with the loss of control -- those moments when forces beyond you take over your fate -- very much infiltrated that film, too.
Like the experience of the family separated by the tsunami, the narrative is split between Maria and Lucas' journey and Henry's with the two younger boys, though the mother and son arc dominates. In the panic that overtakes Maria when she surfaces to a vast churn of water and debris, alone, no sight of her family or anyone else, the odds of survival are laid out. When she spots Lucas struggling in the current, the clash between incredible hope and absolute fear surfaces. Both those emotions carry the film.
Soon it becomes clear that coming out alive is no guarantee of survival. Maria's injuries are grave and in that moment when Lucas sees a gaping wound and whispers "Mama," the boy becomes a man.
As is always the case in disasters like these, the road to help is paved by the care and generosity of strangers, and the movie is filled with the many small acts of kindness extended to the family along the way. The villagers who rip off a door to carry Maria, the man who lends Henry his cellphone despite the precious minutes of battery life he will lose.
Henry spends the hours after the tsunami walking through the devastation screaming Maria and Lucas' names, McGregor channeling such grief in every labored step. Soon he is forced to trust his 5- and 7-year-old boys to others so they can go to the safety of the hills as his search for the rest of the family continues.
Though many people will know the ending before they walk into the theater, that doesn't make "The Impossible" any less affecting. For it is in the details -- the many ways in which fate and circumstance intervened, and what survival required of each member of the Alvarez Belon family -- that you find the far better story.
* * *
Rating: PG-13 (for intense scenes of death and destruction)
Cast: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland and Samuel Joslin
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes