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Movie review: "The Impossible" a better rental

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(114 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense disaster scenes, graphic visuals, brief nudity.)

(Six stars)

Making a disaster movie that is not really a disaster movie takes some doing, but director Juan Antonio Bayona has done a marginally satisfying job with "The Impossible."

Wrapped around the horrific tsunami that struck most of southern Asia and eastern Africa on Boxer Day, 2004 that cost over 250,000 their lives and displaced millions more, this movie is the story of a family's struggle to survive and persevere one of the most horrible natural disasters the world has ever witnessed. 

The movie is set around the true-life ordeal of Maria and Henry Belon of Spain (the family's nationality was changed within the movie to British in order to provide more box office appeal) and how they and their three young sons experience the disaster. The movie enjoins the audience to consider humanity, charity and the seemingly limitless capacity that parents possess to ensure the well-being of their children.  

The movie could have easily slipped into an acutely bad-action-Die-Hard-kind-of-disaster movie almost immediately, but director and writer Sergio Sánchez — for the most part — resisted the easiest of plot devices and concentrated on the emotions that consume people as they experience such calamities. Given that human emotions are significantly more interesting than watching someone deal with, say, sharing a floating mattress with a lizard, this was most welcome.

As the movie opens we meet the parents, played by Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts, as they are landing in Thailand with their three boys, Lucas (12), Thomas (7), and Simon (5) to spend their Christmas vacation on the warm and idyllic beaches. One criticism I have is that the movie initially shares with us rather banal backstories, such as a pestering little brother, a mom who may have to go back to work because of economics, and a child who is scared to sleep in a new bed. Is there not a better way to create the impression of a close and loving family than giving us these rather mundane and recycled setups?

However, thankfully and rather quickly, the wave hits with such suddenness and wrath-of-God-like ferocity that you are swept up in the consuming terror as McGregor's and Watts' characters fight to keep themselves and their children alive.

Watts is a tour de force in this movie and was nominated for a Golden Globe (she lost) and an Academy Award (no way she will beat Sally Field) for her performance. To her credit, Watts has no issue with changing her appearance and strapping on all the ugly makeup, so to speak, in order to show how badly the events batter her character's body.  Her natural beauty and charisma initially pulled me into her character and throughout the film every emotion and every conviction that she had on-screen was utterly natural. She was simply extraordinary.

Just as profound of a performance was given by McGregor, who I think is one of the best working actors today.  Although this movie script was a bit more mainstream for him, he showed great depth and acumen as an actor.

However, the movie's true star was young Tom Holland, who played the couple's oldest son, Lucas. We see his character grow and experience a multitude of difficult emotions throughout the movie and his expressive features and eyes lent themselves well to his character. 

What kept this movie from being one of the better movies of 2012 was the limitation of the story. I do not buy into the mainstream media criticism that since this was the first major film regarding this event it should have been more broad in its scope and at least had a storyline regarding someone native to the region. Recounting someone's personal tragedy on the screen does not diminish others who suffered the same fate.

However, as much as I liked how the movie initially focused upon the emotion of the event, toward the latter half of the movie it became nothing more than a well-shot and exceptionally well-acted Lifetime movie of the week. Most certainly it created tension, but did little, outside of Watt's character, to throw plot twists into the mix. I recognize this film was based upon actual events, but an hour and fifteen minutes into it, it becomes rather stalled.

Toward the end of the movie, the writer seemed to recognize his plot deficiencies and fell back to insipid devices such as having the searching father leave the camera shot just as his son entered. While there is a very heart-warming and tear-jerker moment at the end, I found myself feeling cheated and wanting something more.

Mind you there is nothing wrong with a good "Movie of the Week," but I found solace that I got to enjoy some pretty good acting for my $10 — even if it was a rather tattered Naomi Watts. She is worth the price of admission. Otherwise, this is a rental.

I give it 6 out of 10 stars.

About the Author
Who was that mysterious man you saw in the theater last night? You tried to get a look at him but he quickly disappeared in a puff of smoke, his cackle trailing in the air, leaving behind his calling card: a half-eaten box of popcorn and a lukewarm soda. He is Our Movie Reviewer named Tim!