The Impossible begins and ends as a story of privilege: An affluent couple (Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts) and their three sons vacation in paradise, and a private jet later flies them away. But the paradise is Thailand, in December 2004, and they arrive just a few days before the tsunami.
Directed by J.A. Bayona, The Impossible tells "the true story of one family," and as the sentence fades away, the words "true story" linger on screen. In truth, the family was Spanish, like Bayona, who apparently had to erase their culture to allow Anglo stars to play the leads. Nonetheless, The Impossible is a solid and frequently stirring example of its genre: a film about a disaster, not a disaster film.
When the visually stunning tsunami hits, it's hard to see the seams of special effects, and re-enacting such a harrowing and often gruesome ordeal must have challenged the actors. Tom Holland, who is British and now 16, is especially strong as the couple's son. Bayona presents the beauty of nature before showing us its destructive wrath, and then its reconstructive counterforce, which we might call love or humanity. If you can stand to watch this sort of thing, just forget its sometimes intrusive musical score and focus on its wrenching realities. Starts Fri., Jan. 4.