Summer Sale! Get unlimited digital access for 13 weeks for $13.
Entertainment Movies

'The Impossible': Mother's angle softens tale's too-narrow focus ★★★

Everything that was false about the tsunami sequence in the recent Clint Eastwood film "Hereafter" — the bland overview perspectives, the lack of human immediacy — is corrected, terrifyingly, by the first half-hour of director J.A. Bayona's nerve-shredding docudrama "The Impossible."

In real life, the family was Spanish; in the film written by Sergio G. Sanchez, it's an Anglo family based in Japan but vacationing in Thailand, headed by a Scot, Ewan McGregor, and the British-Australian Naomi Watts. The suspense in the opening scenes, before the tsunami hits, is pretty awful. Then director Bayona (of the very fine and creepy "The Orphanage") makes the disaster itself no less so. (People have been known to leave, or pass out, during these scenes.)

With a mixture of practical and digital trickery, we experience the unthinkable in "The Impossible" firsthand. The moment of impact; the horrid rush of water; the sudden devastation and endless loss; the separation of parents and children, not knowing who's alive and who's dead.

Maria (Watts) and Henry (McGregor) embark on their separate stories of beating the odds, as they search for each other, and their three boys, amid a landscape of pure chaos. Bayona has a knack for complicated lines of action and for relying on Watts — a mighty photogenic sufferer, as well as a first-rate screen actress — throughout the ordeal.

There is, however, a limitation in "The Impossible." It's a good-news story, the sort of thing producers and, I suppose, audiences favor: fierce resolve in the face of grievous loss of life. Nearly 300,000 died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami; this is not their story, not directly. But near the end, when the various winding paths of the core characters begin to intertwine, there are several moments depicting the miraculous endurance of the wealthy white characters, aided and abetted by transportation, health services, etc., that only money can buy. The nonwhite faces are relegated to the background, staring, mutely, impressed at their fortitude. And it all begins to feel a bit off.

Getting there, though, "The Impossible" is tough to resist. In a largely nonverbal performance, Watts conveys a world of motherly anguish and hurt and resolve. She's the heart of the film, and director Bayona knows it and frames the story accordingly.

'The Impossible' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating:
PG-13 (for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity)
Running time: 1:54
Opens: Friday

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
  • 10 movies to see over the holidays

    10 movies to see over the holidays

    Tragic, yes, but some sagas must come to an end, such as "Twilight." Other chapters in an ongoing legend promise a follow-up even before the end credits roll, as in the very good new James Bond film "Skyfall." And the rest? The rest is silence, for now, because the public hasn't voted at the box...

  • Top 50 superhero movies of the last 10 years

    Top 50 superhero movies of the last 10 years

    Since 2002 there have been arguably 50 movies about superheroes. Arguably, because genre is tricky; it's often variations on a theme, and some variations are less obvious than others. ("Star Wars," for instance, a bit of a space western, is no one's picture of the western genre.) Oh, also: Because...