Say a prayer that The Impossible is the closest that you or I or anyone anywhere will get to the kind of catastrophe that makes this movie so harrowing, riveting and uneasily ''uplifting.'' The story is based on a true one, about a Spanish family mother, father, little kids vacationing in Thailand in 2004 when a cataclysmic earthquake in the Indian Ocean unleashed what is believed to be the single most destructive tsunami in history. Between then and now, under the exquisite care of Spanish director J.A. Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sánchez (who worked together so beautifully five years ago on The Orphanage), the family's impossible-but-true saga has been ethnically morphed into that of a peaches-and-cream British clan, with mother and father Maria and Henry played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor, and eldest, 13-year-old son Lucas brought to life with truly outstanding gravitas by then-14-year old Tom Holland. In the deadly wall of water that rises up out of the sea and smashes the land (eyewitness accounts confirm that destruction arrived without warning), Maria and Lucas are separated from Henry and the two younger boys. What happens next is hell on earth.
It's agony, in a rewarding way, to squirm and cringe and groan through an ordeal so realistically re-created. The impressive tsunami in Clint Eastwood's Hereafter looks blatantly CGI-ish by comparison, as Bayona and cinematographer Óscar Faura convey the drawn-out physical horror of the devouring water, the mud, and the debris that became lethal obstructions. But all that blood-soaked horror would mean little without the movie's simultaneous acute attention to emotional crisis. It's worth acknowledging the dismay of some that, in the midst of the suffering by hundreds of native residents, we're invited to care about the problems of comfy white visitors. (More attention is paid to how brown-skinned caregivers treat tourists than to their own wounded and dying.) But such UNICEF thinking misses the larger, universal story of the kind of superhuman strength that love can inspire.
Flinging herself, ego-free and vulnerable, into the shredded skin and soul of Maria with utter conviction, Watts embodies everyday maternal heroism (an overused word that here deserves its place). Hers is a beautiful performance that couldn't exist, by the way, without young Holland's own impressive access to the emotional truth of being a kid who must become his mother's protector. (McGregor? Equally effective.) While flooding the viewer with nerve-racking anxiety, The Impossible is possibly one of the most pro-family-values movies of the year. B+