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A disaster 'Impossible' to imagine on screen

It is all but impossible to imagine what survivors of natural disasters must have gone through to make it out alive. That's not what the title of "The Impossible" refers to -- it's that act of making it to safety. But the filmmakers might have done better to consider that other impossibility.

It might seem a noble project, aiming to show the rest of the world what hell some endured. But even a dramatic film can only suggest part of the experience. And I fear "The Impossible" might serve only to trivialize that experience.

Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are Maria and Henry, a British couple with three children, including eldest Lucas (Tom Holland). Henry has a job in Japan, and the family decides to spend their winter holiday in nearby Thailand, enjoying a warm Christmas on the beach.

On screen
'The Impossible'
2 out of 4 stars
Stars: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona
Rated: PG-13 for intense realistic disaster sequences, including disturbing injury images and brief nudity
Running time: 114 minutes

The first part of the film establishes that this is a normal couple with normal concerns. Henry is worried about a rival for his position; Maria wonders if she should return to work now that the children are no longer toddlers. Just a hint of marital discord comes when Maria suggests it might be time to move back home to Britain.

But mere hours after the excitement of Christmas morning comes drama of a very different sort: one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history, the 2004 earthquake in the Indian Ocean.

More than 230,000 people died in 14 different countries from the tsunami that the earthquake caused. The family at the center of "The Impossible" did not. This is a true story though, of course, the cinematized version of it: This family, in real life, is Spanish. So is the director of the film, Juan Antonio Bayona. But films in English get more viewers.

At times, "The Impossible" looks like such a genre pic. When the tsunami first comes to the coast, every person at this luxury resort stops and stares at the incoming waves, just like people do in every disaster movie.

And there are certainly scenes of horror, though unfortunately, they're anything but supernatural. The family is separated by the overwhelming waves, but Maria and Lucas manage to find each other. Blood drips down both mother and son. They hang on to a fallen tree for dear life as a car and other detritus go floating past.

Holland, a 16-year-old newcomer, is younger in the film but is strangely more mature than his mother. "If another wave catches us down here, we will die," he says to her when she insists on finding the source of a child's cry.

Watts has received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance, though there isn't a lot of meaty dialogue for her to chew on here. As you might imagine, there is a lot of crying in pain. That's what a real natural disaster would be like, but it's not really the stuff of cinematic stories. In focusing on one family, and turning their horror into a stylized story of "hope," the makers of "The Impossible" might have done thousands of other survivors -- and those who died -- a great disservice.