In theory, 'The Impossible' is an uplifting film about a family that faced unimaginable horror and survived. In practice, 'The Impossible' is a grim slog through tragedy with a small kernel of happiness waiting at the end -- and that kernel of happiness is so coated with thick, gooey sentimentality that it's awfully hard to swallow.

The film, like so many in the last few months, is a freely fictionalized account of a true story. An English family settle in for a relaxing vacation at an upscale beach resort in Thailand. The day after Christmas, Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts) worry about the future -- job security, money issues -- little realizing the much bigger problem lurking right off shore. Director J.A. Bayona, in a subtle comic touch, cuts to a shot of the hotel from the perspective of the ocean, as if the water itself is a monster waiting to strike (he even fills the soundtrack with ominous, rumbly John Williams-ish music to hammer the point home).

Suddenly there's an earthquake, and then a tsunami, one of the biggest in human history. Maria and the couple's oldest son Lucas (Tom Holland) are swept away by the monstrous waves and, after a terrifying ordeal that leaves Watts' character seriously injured, deposited who knows where. From there they have to trek through miles of devastation in the hope of finding someone who can provide Maria the medical attention she needs. Near the halfway point of the film, 'The Impossible' cuts back to Henry and his other two sons back at what's left of the resort, as they desperately search for the missing members of the family.

The centerpiece of the film -- and the highlight of it as well -- is the tsunami sequence, with Watts and Holland taken on a truly horrific journey through the raging sea. In a breathless series of beats, the pair are reunited, separated by more massive waves, then fight to stay together as the current continues to pull them apart. Bayona's recreation of the deluge is frighteningly realistic, with careful sound design and brisk editing. He often pulls his camera up and away from the action to bring us a bird's eye view of the devastation, either to show off the impressive work of his production design and visual effects teams, or perhaps to present us with a heartless God's vantage on the cruelty and destruction He has unfeelingly wrought.

Those sequences are incredible. But once the flood begins to recede, Bayona's focus grows cloudier than the brackish waters that engulf our heroes. He volleys between scenes of in-your-face despair (McGregor wandering through a parking lot piled with dead bodies looking for Maria and Lucas) and roll-your-eyes schmaltziness (the family members are reunited under circumstances so unlikely they more than live up to the film's title). When all else fails (which happens a few times), he flashes back to the tsunami itself. It must be noted that the real people who endured this tragedy only had to do so once. Everyone who sees 'The Impossible' should prepare themselves to do it a few times.

I suppose there's something to be said for the harrowing emotional roller coaster with Watts and Holland in the water. Watts and McGregor are good actors, and they invest everything they have into their characters' struggles to find one another. They do their best to help Bayona teach us something about the frailty of civilization and the resilience of families.

But this is not really a practical guide to surviving a tsunami -- these five people were mostly just lucky; over 200,000 others were not. It's not really a feel-good tearjerker -- not with so many corpses dotting the frame. With more letdown than uplift, with Naomi Watts howling like a banshee in agony over her wounded leg, it plays like a Werner Herzog movie with a really lavish budget -- except Herzog would never temper his message about the inherent cruelty of nature with phony inspirational hogwash.


'The Impossible' is now playing in select theaters nationwide.

Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’

More From Eagle 106.3