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The Impossible
In Theaters: 01/04/2013
On Video: 04/23/2013
By: Christopher Null
The Impossible
Have you seen "Over the Top," mom?

I live in San Francisco, the earthquake capital of the U.S.

Since 2004, no one much talks about earthquakes any more. Now, the big spectre of death is the tsunami, international fallout from the devastating waves that washed away coastal Thailand and killed over 200,000 people. We haven’t had a significant tsunami here since then (or ever, as near as I can tell) but the concern over an unstoppable wave of water has trumped that of buildings shaking and collapsing over our heads.

The Impossible is the story of the tsunami — as seen through the eyes of a tourist family (British in this film, Spanish in the real story upon which the movie is based) who arrive here to spend the Christmas holiday. No sooner have they unwrapped their presents than the tsunami strikes, without warning, turning their luxury resort into a watery mass grave.

Maria (Naomi Watts) is the focus at first. She’s united with one of her three sons, and, severely injured, spends what feels like an eternity trying to wade her way to dry ground and medical care. Eventually she is separated from her son once she finds aid — after a hospital assumes she is dead and gives her bed to someone else. Meanwhile, husband Henry (Ewan McGregor) has not died, as we’ve presumed, but is alive and reasonably well with the other two sons. Dad makes the strange decision to send his kids to a “safe place” in an anonymous truck, a stranger promising she’ll watch them, so he can look for the other two members of the family. Soon enough, they’ve pretty much vanished, as well.

Things aren’t going too well for the family, and it’s at this point that the film earns both its title and its criticism. For a solid half hour, The Impossible consists of kids wandering around hollering. (One child makes it his personal mission to try to reunite families by walking around the hospitals and refugee camps, calling people’s names that other victims are looking for.) There is copious sobbing to go with all the yelling, and we have to assume that someone’s going to die before this is all resolved, probably the badly injured Maria. But nothing much does happen, just a lot of barely-missed connections with members of the family passing one another on the other side of walls or missing each other by mere seconds. Damn you, fate!

Director Juan Antonio Bayona (The Orphanage) finally wakes things up, though, by — at last — flashing back to show what the tsunami looked like. It’s one of the best special effects of the year, a harrowing and gut-churning experience that shows the damage both from the bird’s-eye view and from the POV of the victims. See this and you won’t worry about earthquakes either. You’ll have nightmares about tsunamis.

The Impossible has been criticized for “whitewashing” the truth, turning a Spanish family into pretty Brits and virtually ignoring the plight of the Thai who were killed by the thousands in this disaster. That’s a fair enough complaint, but Bayona is just telling one story here — not just of a single disaster but of a real family, too. That they were tourists shouldn’t be all that important: These five lived through an unbelievable experience, and our lives are made better by watching that experience. (Terrible title, by the way. It sounds like a movie about a fish that learns how to walk. “Impossible!”)

While the action lulls badly in the middle of the film — and attempts at generating pathos through the introduction of characters who pass in and out of the family’s lives don’t always work out — it’s redeemed for the most part in the end. Bayona is lucky, though: The Impossible is a tale that largely tells itself… with a little essential help from Hollywood’s best special effects guys, that is.

Blu-ray extras include commentary from the director and crew, plus the real Maria Belon, casting and behind-the-scenes featurettes, and deleted scenes.