‘Impossible’: Tsunami story too heavy-handed

Audiences sitting down to watch “The Impossible” know they are about to see a movie about the 2004 tsunami. The event and its aftermath are depicted with horrifying realism in this based-on-truth movie.

Because we know that, there’s something especially unsavory about the quiet opening scenes. This is like the beginning to a horror movie, in which periodically we catch glimpses of the monster and the music gets all ominous, except the monster here is the Indian Ocean.

The family that had an incredible experience in Thailand in 2004 is here depicted as English, although they were actually Spanish. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor play the parents, on vacation at a resort with their three sons.

The arrival of the tsunami is not portrayed from an objective overview but from the micro-vantage point of the family members, who are playing in the resort pool when they see the palm trees behind the hotel begin to fall over.

Director Juan Antonio Bayona, who made “The Orphanage” a scary genre exercise, stages this cataclysm with frightening skill. The aftermath, too, is convincing, as the landscape is portrayed as a stinking mess of ruined vegetation, trashed buildings and bodies.

We follow the ordeal of the mother and the oldest boy, ably played by Tom Holland (a newcomer to movies who’d played “Billy Elliott” on stage). The film doesn’t skimp on the damage inflicted on bodies by the disaster, and Naomi Watts in particular has a lot to endure.

This true story is certainly stirring, although even while getting involved in the travails of this family, I couldn’t help being distracted by the filmmaker’s heavy hand. Just about every big plot turn is underscored with a close-up or a musical flourish that underlines the significance of what we’ve seen.

And then a wise mystery lady (Geraldine Chaplin) wanders in for one scene, to impart a dollop of philosophy into the proceedings.

Don’t misunderstand: The chaos and emotional terror of this event are vividly evoked. The actors are committed and effective, including the children. Those looking for a serving of spiritual uplift will find it on the menu.

But the film felt pushy enough to me that I got tired of it after a while. By the time “The Impossible” re-visits the tsunami for a flashback in its final reel, the overstatement is complete.

“The Impossible”

The 2004 tsunami, and its effect on a vacationing family, is vividly and horrifyingly re-constructed. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are the parents put through the disaster, and despite the incredible re-creation, the movie has a sense of overstatement that feels heavy-handed.

Rated: PG-13 for violence, nudity.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Thornton Place.

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