One moment it's paradise on Earth for comfortable British couple Maria and Henry Bennett (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor) and their three young sons at a Thailand resort, and the next it's a tumbling, watery hell as the Indian Ocean rises up without warning to crush everything relentlessly in its path.
So begins the aptly titled “The Impossible,” directed by J.A. Bayona from a script by Sergio G. Sanchez (collaborators on the acclaimed “The Orphanage”) and based on the true story of one family's incredible ordeal in the wake of the Dec. 26, 2004, South Asian tsunami that claimed the lives of more than 230,000 people in 14 countries.
In the first wave of the terrible deluge, Maria and her 13-year-old son Lucas (Tom Holland) are separated from Henry and the two younger boys, swept inland in a rapidly surging flood of murky seawater filled with debris that inflicts cuts large and small all over their bodies, bone-breaking stationary obstacles, falling trees and floating automobiles as they fight to keep their heads above water and hang on to one another.
Maria is seriously hurt, yet her determination to reach some safe place with Lucas and a small boy they rescue along the way keeps her going, even as she suffers excruciating pain and visibly begins to weaken from infection. At the same time the once troublesome and ill-tempered Lucas quickly transforms himself into his mother's brave protector on their harrowing journey through a damaged Third World full of tens of thousands of strangers in distress, most of whom don't speak English.
Meanwhile, Henry is conducting a frantic search for Maria and Lucas while keeping the smaller boys — aged 5 and 7 — out of harm's way as best he can. Hope that the whole family is still alive somewhere is growing thin for all of them.
With the help of a sterling cast, some harrowing and startlingly realistic images of nature at its most violent, and incidents of kindness and humanity at its best, Bayona has recreated a powerful, real-life example of familial love and unexpected reserves of courage overcoming seemingly insurmountable horrors wrought by cataclysm.
Watts' portrait of exceptional maternal might in the face of impossible odds, and especially young Holland's performance as the boy who must find the strength of a man within himself, are the stuff of which Oscar wins are made.
Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland. (Intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity)