In late October, Hurricane Sandy delivered a reminder of how devastating the forces of nature can be. The Impossible, the harrowing story of a family caught in the unbelievable carnage of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami - unbelievable, but true - offers another chilling illustration. Chilling, yet thrilling as well.

Filmmaker J.A. Bayona, using the real-life, inspirational story of the Belon family - a husband, wife, and their three young sons on vacation in Khao Lak, Thailand - martials a team of effects artists (miniatures and CGI), stunt performers, and, most important, three amazing actors for a tale of epic disaster and heroic survival.

Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are Maria and Henry, Brits living in Japan with their kids. A plane takes them to Thailand on Christmas Eve, where they've booked into a new beach resort. It's tropical heaven, with luxurious accommodations, a fine restaurant, a swimming pool, and sun-bleached sands spilling into a tranquil blue sea.

And then, on the morning of Dec. 26, the world is upended. The resort is run through by huge roiling tidal waves; giant trees topple; cars and trucks, boats and houses, are tossed around like tiny toys. Death and destruction is everywhere, and Maria and Henry are separated - she with the oldest boy, Lucas (the remarkable Tom Holland), and Henry with the younger brothers (Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast). But that's only the beginning of their ordeal.

The Impossible is primal stuff, a tribute to the power of family, to the determination of a mother and father, defying nature, defying the odds, driven by hope. Maria and Lucas, caught in the raging, muddy undertows as the tsunami crashes ashore, cry out to each other as bodies and debris rush past in the water. Later, sloshing through the swampy ruins away from the coast, they rescue a child. Still in shock, Maria doesn't realize the extent of her own injuries. Her son puts on a strong face - but his eyes can't mask his crushing worry.

The Impossible is split in two, with its first half following Maria and Lucas, the second tracking Henry and the fate of the younger boys. There's a heartbreaking scene in a survivors camp where Henry goes looking for a cellphone to call his parents in the U.K. and let them know he's alive. It's some of the best work McGregor has done.

Watts, too, is extraordinary - she manages both the physical and emotional demands of the role, with soul-deep conviction.

Clint Eastwood's 2010 film, Hereafter, also re-created the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Thailand. It was an effective piece of cinema, but it is nothing compared to the visceral realism that Bayona and his team achieve.

And yet, The Impossible isn't just a brilliantly executed disaster movie. It's a brilliantly executed movie that asks us to contemplate the seemingly random and indiscriminate brutality of the planet we live on, and also the resilience, compassion, and courage we are capable of.EndText

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